'If you want my honest opinion, Beth is right,' Tom said at breakfast the next morning. 'You've had hardly any time for anything else since you started that shop. You would find it too hard to run it alone. Gerry has been doing most of the bookwork for you free of charge, and he's hardly going to do that if Beth isn't a part of it, is he?'
'No, I imagine not,' Anna said reluctantly. Tom was right but he might have been more helpful, come up with ideas for how she might manage the business herself. 'But I could probably find someone else – or do it myself.'
'Bookwork isn't your strong point,' Tom pointed out. 'I think it would be best to take what you can get out of the lease, and finish while you're ahead. After all, it was supposed to be just for a short period when you took the lease, wasn't it? I didn't think you meant to hold onto it forever.'
'Yes…' Anna admitted it was true. They had taken on a short lease when the shops were newly built. There had been several empty ones then and the landlord had been happy to give them a four-year term with an option of another ten. It was that ten-year lease option that their agent thought he could sell for them. 'It wouldn't be as easy as before, but I shall miss the shop, Tom. I like making up the orders and meeting people – and there's the money. I've found it useful for a number of things.'
'Nothing to stop you getting a job for a few hours a week if you really want to,' Tom said and frowned. 'You could advertise to do flowers for weddings and parties from home, couldn't you? You don't need to earn a fortune and you have all the contacts for buying the stock.'
'Yes, I suppose I could,' Anna agreed, though it wouldn't be the same. And it wasn't what she had hoped for from him. 'I thought you might lend me the money or become a sleeping partner?'
'Not interested in the second option, too many problems with running a small business, and not enough profit,' Tom said. 'And I haven't actually got that kind of money to throw away at the moment. I took out a loan for the kitchen, remember. I'm still paying that off. Besides, I should have thought you would want to be around for Beth while she is ill. She is your best friend. Your mother complained that she never saw you the last few months before…' He saw Anna blanch and swore softly. 'Sorry. I didn't mean that…but you hardly think of anything but that shop these days.'
'Are you trying to tell me that I've been neglecting you and the kids?' He had touched a sore spot, because Sheila had complained more than once that she hardly ever saw her daughter. 'That I neglected my mother?'
'No, of course not.' There was an odd expression in his eyes. 'Well, it has felt that way at times. You couldn't come away when I asked you, because you were working – and you were tired a lot of the time. It took over your life, Anna – and ours.'
'And you aren't working all hours? You asked me to go away once as I remember, but there have been a lot of times I've been left on my own. If it hadn't been for the shop…' She broke off abruptly, because she could see the way this was heading. 'I don't want a row, Tom. It isn't worth it – all I was asking was if you could let me have the money.'
'The answer is no, not at the moment. I thought you had some in the bank?'
'I've promised that to Robbie and I've no intention of breaking my word.' Anna frowned as she saw a flicker of annoyance in his eyes. 'Is that why you are doing this – because I told him he could have the money?'
'No, of course not. I'm not that petty.' Tom looked angry, indignant. 'But if that's what you think we might as well forget this discussion right now.'
'Then I have no option,' Anna said. Her eyes were stinging and she felt like crying. Tom was blaming her for spending too much time at the shop, and that wasn't fair. He knew how much she'd enjoyed it, and the money she had earned had contributed in lots of ways. It seemed that it was all right for him to work all hours, but she had to be at his beck and call whenever he wanted her. Not that he did want her much these days. 'I'll telephone the agent tomorrow and see what he offers.'
'You might get a loan from the bank until your mother's legacy comes through,' Tom said suddenly, almost as if he'd thought twice about his harsh words. 'Had you considered that?'
'I was going to use that to pay for the repairs the cottage needs,' Anna said. 'Mum couldn't be bothered with it, but the agent says they need to be done if we're going to let it again.'
'Why throw good money after bad?' Tom said. 'I only went there once when your grandmother was alive. I seem to remember that it was a bit antiquated. I think it would cost far more than you could afford to put it right. Remember what this kitchen cost us. You would probably do better to sell it as it is; a builder will push it over and build something modern.'
'That's horrible, Tom,' Anna said feeling hurt by his attitude. He didn't seem to be interested in anything she was these days. 'It is lovely down there. Gran had a beautiful garden. I know it needs work on the cottage. Aunt Mary had new wiring installed and I think she may have had some work done elsewhere, but Mum just left it when it came to her. She wouldn't even go and look. I think the village had bad memories for her. She lived at the cottage with Dad and Gran for a while, before they moved into Salisbury. I was very young then so I don't remember much, but I visited now and then. I think it could be lovely if it was modernised.'
'Sheila probably had more sense than to think of having it done. These old places can cost a fortune to put right. Why bother? Sell it for what you can get. You'll have some money then and you won't need to work – sounds good to me.'
Anna turned away, starting to stack the dishwasher with the breakfast dishes. Was Tom being deliberately hurtful or did he just not realise how it seemed to her?
'Will you be home for dinner?' she asked, keeping her back turned to him. 'Or are you working late again?'
'There's a meeting at the golf club this evening,' Tom said. 'I should be home about ten.'
'Oh fine,' Anna said bitterly. 'I'll just eat by myself again, shall I? And then I'll sell my share of the lease and sit here twiddling my thumbs all day until I resemble a cabbage.'
'Don't be ridiculous,' Tom said soundly annoyed. 'I'm not telling you what to do – raise a loan from the bank if you want the damned shop so much!'
'And thank you for all your support,' Anna said. 'I know where I stand now anyway.'
'For goodness sake!' Tom said angry now. 'I haven't got time for this now. I have a meeting at ten and I'm going to be late. We'll talk about this another day.'
'Don't bother,' Anna said. 'We have to move quickly if we want to sell the lease for the best price. Apparently the agent has someone interested, and if we let the chance go we shan't get so much.'
'Please yourself,' Tom said, plainly wanting to leave. He just wasn't interested in her or what she wanted these days. 'You know what I think.'
Anna stared out of the window as he left. She heard the door slam after he had gone out, and closed her eyes, her shoulders heaving as she fought to control the emotions whirling inside her. She was disappointed that he had refused to help, but if he'd just said that he couldn't afford it at the moment she wouldn't have minded. It was the way he had implied that she had been wasting her time this past four years, that she had neglected other things for the sake of her business.
Was it true? Anna wondered about it, trying to find the truth. She was boiling up inside, hurting because of things Tom had said, but more than that was the knowledge that it wouldn't have happened a few months ago. She wasn't sure when the changes had begun…was it a year or more? She couldn't be certain. At first it had been small things. Tom didn't smile at her in the same way; they didn't share little jokes or go to bed on a Sunday afternoon when the kids were out.
Anna sat down on a stool, trying to make sense of what was happening. Had she neglected Tom? She didn't think so but of course there had been the inevitable lapses – a couple of times when his favourite shirt hadn't been ready – and the time she'd had to refuse him when he'd asked her to go on one of his business trips. Did that amount to neglect?
'Oh, bugger,' Anna said. She hardly ever swore but this was enough to make a saint curse and she had never claimed to be that.
Her mother had complained that she never saw Anna. It wasn't true. She'd asked her to Sunday lunch every other week – the weeks that Tom was playing golf – and they'd had a good gossip during the morning. Sheila had sometimes helped her to do the vegetables. But of course she hadn't been able to pop round to her mother's flat every day, not as she had before they opened the shop. Was that wrong? Was it selfish of her to want to do more than keep the house clean and cook for her family?
Tom had thought it was a good idea at the start. He'd encouraged her to go for it, knowing how much she loved flower arranging and how good she was at it. She was good at other things too, like cooking and making her house comfortable and pretty. When the children were younger she'd made some of her own clothes, her curtains too. These days, she bought them ready-made if she could. Was that what Tom wanted her to be, a stay at home housewife who put her home and family first? Did he resent her being independent, giving the children the things they wanted?
Anna couldn't help feeling resentful. He could have been more understanding. She had worked hard to keep the house looking just as it always had, and to see that the children didn't suffer. Susie and Robbie were out most of the time anyway, and Tom worked late at least four nights a week. Why shouldn't she have some time for herself anyway?
Anna sighed as she left the house. There was no use in going over and over it in her mind. If the money had come through from her mother's lawyers she might have gone ahead whatever Tom said, but she didn't want to borrow from the bank. Besides, she might need that money for her grandmother's cottage…
'He says the best we can get is four and a half thousand,' Anna told Beth when she telephoned her later that day. They had decided that Beth wouldn't come into the shop again because she was due to go into hospital for her operation at the weekend and wanted some time at home. 'I've told him to go ahead and exchange contracts and that I'll hand over the keys at the end of next week.'
'That is a relief,' Beth said. 'It has been playing on my mind for a while. We have a few outstanding accounts to pay but we'll have nearly two thousand each when we've finished, less any tax. I'm going to give most of mine to Julie for the baby. She really needs it, poor love.'
'I'm glad you're pleased,' Anna said, keeping her own feelings of disappointment to herself. 'How are you today, love?'
'If you want the truth, I'm scared to death,' Beth replied. 'Gerry wasn't much help. He couldn't stop crying all night. He didn't want to leave me this morning, but I made him go to work. I've got things to do here and he would only be under my feet.'
'Oh, Beth…' Anna could hear the underlying fear in her voice. It made all her own problems seem insignificant. What really mattered was that Beth should get through this. 'Are you all right? Shall I come round?'
'No, don't,' Beth said, a catch in her voice. 'If you do we shall probably both start crying. Anyway, you have plenty to do there. You will have to cancel some advance orders we've taken, but you must do what you can before we close. You don't want to let anyone down if you can help it.'
'I'll do my best,' Anna said. She had intended to anyway, and if it had been up to her she would never have sold, but that was water under the bridge now. 'Don't worry about the shop. I can sort it all out, and I'll bring the final accounts to Gerry for checking.'
'All right. I've got something cooking, Anna. I'll talk to you later.'
'Fine. Take care, love.'
Anna replaced the receiver. She felt numb, her mind reeling from the speed of events. She knew she ought not to care so much about losing the shop. Beth was in danger of losing far more. She could even die…the thought made Anna sick inside. She didn't want her best friend to die. Suddenly she realised what all this meant; it wasn't only that she wouldn't be coming to work with Beth at the shop. She might not see her at all if the cancer had spread too far. And that would leave a great big gap in her life.
It had been a hectic couple of weeks. To make the most from their remaining stock, Anna had run a sale in the shop, reducing vases, baskets and flower arranging materials to half price. She had been very busy for a few days and there wasn't much left to pack into the back of her car on the last day. She had made up a huge basket of flowers for Beth, which she had given to Gerry to take in the day after Beth had her operation, because the hospital was only allowing one visitor at the moment.
Gerry had broken down when she took him to flowers. The shock of Beth's illness had knocked him for six and he looked dreadful, his face grey with grief. Seeing him that way made Anna want to weep, because he was usually so easy going, so cheerful.
'It had spread more than they thought from the mammograms,' he told Anna when she asked how Beth was. 'They took both her breasts away, because they were afraid it might spread further, and they are going to give her a course of chemotherapy – but they told me it isn't certain it will work.'
'Oh, God,' Anna said, choking on her tears. She hadn't been able to help herself, because the news was worse than she'd thought. For a moment the world seemed to go spinning away, as if a black void had opened up in front of her. She sat down, because if she hadn't she might have fallen. 'Oh, Gerry. This is awful. I don't understand – Beth never mentioned a lump. Surely she didn't just ignore it?'
'Apparently, it was the kind that you don't notice yourself, soft rather than hard and gristly, and they are often the worst,' Gerry said. 'It was in her right breast, near the nipple. She had felt a bit of dryness and what she now knows was leakage, but she didn't take much notice. Too busy I suppose…'
Too busy…because she was working in the shop as well as trying to keep a home and family going? Anna wondered if Gerry blamed her, because she had been the one who wanted the shop in the first place. Her enthusiasm had carried Beth with her, but it was clear that she'd had enough of it for a while now.
Anna left Gerry, feeling as if a black cloud was hanging over her. She had been wretched for the rest of the day, but being busy in the shop had eased her feeling of guilt and distress. For the next ten days she had managed to put most of her worries from her mind, because she simply hadn't had time to sit about and think. She owed it to Beth to get as much as she could from the business.
It was going to be different now, Anna realized as she closed the shop for the last time. She had promised to slip the keys into the letting agent's office on the way home, and that was it: an end to the past four years.
She had kept a few of the things she liked using for flower arranging, especially some of the baskets and vases, just in case she decided to try working from home, but the business was finished. She was conscious of an emptiness inside as she drove home; it was the end of an era. Nothing was going to be quite the same again.
'When one door closes another opens.' It was a voice from the distant past, something her grandmother had often said. Anna recalled her saying it to Sheila when her husband left her, but in her case the door had stayed firmly shut. Perhaps because Sheila had refused to let it open even a crack. She had wallowed in her misery and self-pity, never forgiving the man who had deserted her.
Anna decided she wasn't going to waste her life looking back. She wasn't sure yet what she wanted to do next, but she would find something. Perhaps a part time job or working from home this time. But whatever she did, she would make sure that Tom had no reason to complain of neglect.
The phone was ringing when Anna got in. She picked it up, discovering that the call was from Robbie. He was letting her know that he had arrived safely at the hostel he and his friends had chosen to stay at for the first few weeks.
'Is it all right?' Anna asked.
'It's not bad,' Robbie said. 'You wouldn't like it much but we're all right. We shall probably move on soon.'
'Have you had a chance to look round, see anything of your surroundings yet?'
'What we have seen is beautiful,' Robbie said. 'You would love the country, Mum. We visited a temple yesterday on our way here. It was brilliant. I'll send some pictures through on the laptop when I can.'
'What is the weather like?'
'Hot. Everything is great and I'm fine.'
'That is all I need to know,' Anna said a wave of relief spreading through her. It was just so good to hear his voice, right now when she needed it. 'Don't waste any more of your money, love. Just let me know where you are when you can. And if you need money. I'll have some more soon.'
'Thanks, Mum. You're great, do you know that?'
'Champion Mum,' Anna said and laughed. 'Love you.'
'I love you.'
Anna's eyes pricked with tears as she replaced the receiver. It wasn't often that her children told her that they loved her, in fact Susie hadn't for years. She was going to miss having her son around, but she was glad that he was doing what he wanted.
She went through to the kitchen, taking her digital phone with her as she put the kettle on and started to think about making supper. It rang just as she was pouring a cup of tea, and she saw it was from Gerry when his number flashed up. Her breath caught in her throat as she answered it.
'Gerry – how is Beth?'
'A little better today,' he said sounding less desperate than he had of late. 'She is sitting up in bed telling the nurses what to do – and lecturing me.'
'That's a good sign.' Anna said with a sigh of relief. 'I'm so glad, Gerry.'
'She wants you to visit her,' he said. 'The hospital are allowing other visitors now so could you pop in – tomorrow afternoon if you can? I have to be at work and Julie has something on so she can't go until the evening when her husband gets home.'
'Yes, of course,' Anna said. 'I've finished at the shop now so I don't have much to do…'
'Beth feels bad about that. She didn't like to tell you that she wanted out. I hope it won't make any difference to your friendship?'
'No, of course not,' Anna said. 'Don't worry about it, Gerry. I'll find something else.'
'I'll finish your books for you soon, let you know what tax you need to pay – it shouldn't be much, because you both paid on your wages all the time: it's just the extra bits.'
'Good. Tell Beth I'll come tomorrow.'
'She will be pleased. She has been wanting to see you, but the hospital said only family. Now she can have more visitors and she may be home soon.'
'That is really good news,' Anna said. She switched off and started to make a salad. She and Susie would have cold ham for their meal, and she would cook a steak for Tom when he came home with chips and some of the salad. It was easy to get no matter what time he came in, though quite often he'd snatched a snack on the train these days.
She glanced at the kitchen clock, humming a little tune to herself. The phone call from Robbie and the good news about Beth had made her feel much better. She felt that the shadow that had been hanging over her since Beth made her shocking announcement had begun to lift. Of course it didn't mean that Beth was out of the woods, but at least she had come through this far.
Anna checked the newspaper. There was a series she liked on the TV that evening. She would watch it after she'd eaten her meal.
Glancing at the kitchen clock, she realized that Susie was late home. Her daughter rarely came straight home from school but she was later than usual, perhaps because it was the end of the spring term. She had forgotten that, because she had been too busy and too bothered about Beth. She would have to speak to Susie, ask if she would like to go somewhere, perhaps to London on the train to buy some new clothes.
Anna was just wondering if she should eat alone, when the back door opened and Susie came in. She was surprised to see her daughter wearing her best skirt and top instead of the school uniform she normally wore during the week.
'Hello, love,' she said and smiled at her. 'You look nice. Did you have time off for something?'
'I tried to tell you about it this morning,' Susie said, 'but you weren't listening, as usual.'
'When was this?' Anna had no memory of Susie trying to tell her something. 'I don't recall anything in particular.'
'I told you about the new hairdressing shop I'd seen opening round the corner.'
'Yes, I think I do remember that. Have you been to have your hair done?' She looked at her daughter, unable to see any difference in Susie's lovely blonde hair.
'The were advertising for girls to shampoo and help out while they learn to cut and blow dry and all the rest of it. I've got a job.'
'A weekend job?'
'No, full-time. I start next Monday.'
'But you can't – you take your exams next term.'
'I've decided I don't want to go to university,' Susie said as casually as if she were deciding what to eat for supper. 'It's a waste of time. I want to get married and have kids, and I can work at the hairdressing shop until I do…'
'Just like that?' Anna felt furiously angry. 'You didn't think you should discuss it with your father and me first?'
'When would I get a chance?' Susie said. 'You were always at the shop or busy doing housework – and Dad is never here these days. Besides, it's my choice.'
'I thought you wanted to be a doctor like Robbie?'
'That was ages ago,' Susie said. 'I've seen how hard it was for him and I'm nowhere near as clever as he is – besides, it isn't what I want to do with my life now.'
'Oh, Susie…' Anna was so disappointed that she hardly knew how to answer her. 'You don't have to be a doctor, but there are so many other things you could do. You may think you're not as clever as your brother but you are very bright. You could do anything.'
'What I want to do is get married and have children. Jack says his wife won't need to work – so what is the point of all that study? I might as well be at work, earning the money to buy things for when we get married.'
'And when is that going to be?' Anna asked, a hint of sarcasm in her voice.
'When I'm eighteen,' Susie said. 'Jack is building a house for us. We could get married before that and live in a rented place, but I didn't think you would let us – so we'll wait until I'm eighteen. It isn't long.'
'So that's it – the limit of your ambitions,' Anna said. 'I thought you wanted more from life than that, a career that you could go back to when you'd had your family.'
'The way you have?' Susie looked mutinous. 'No, thanks, Mum. I shan't make that mistake. You used to be good fun, taking me and Robbie everywhere, but since you had the shop you don't even listen to what I tell you. It's all you care about…'
'I'm listening now,' Anna said, struck by Susie's harsh accusations. 'If I'd realized you were so unhappy about things…'
'If you'd listened you might have guessed,' Susie said. 'It's no wonder Dad is never around. You don't care about either of us.'
'That isn't true, Susie,' Anna said. 'You know I care – about both of you, all of you.'
'Do you?' Susie looked disbelieving. 'Jack is taking me out this evening. We are getting engaged, if you are interested.'
'That just isn't fair,' Anna said feeling hurt, because she hadn't deserved this from Susie. Surely she hadn't been that bad a mother? 'As a matter of fact I was going to ask if you wanted to come to London next week, buy some new clothes – but if you are getting engaged you might prefer some money?'
'I shan't be able to go to London, because I shall be at work,' Susie said, a hint of defiance in her pretty face. 'And if you mean it about some money, thanks. I'll save it towards my wedding dress.'
'You are intending to have a white wedding then?'
'Of course,' Susie said. 'Are you saying we can't?'
'No, of course not. I should be disappointed if you didn't.'
Susie looked at her uncertainly. 'It's a good job, Mum. I shall go to college twice a week for training, and it's what I want to do – until we have a family. I could always do a bit of hairdressing at people's homes when I have children, if I want to. Lots of girls do that for their friends and relatives – but I don't want to be stuck in a shop the way you were. I don't see what you find so appealing about work. I would rather be at home – the way you used to be.'
Anna didn't try to justify herself. It seemed that her family felt she had neglected them – all except Robbie. 'If I'd known you were getting engaged I could have given you a party.'
'Jack wouldn't want that,' Susie said, 'but I could bring him to Sunday lunch if you like?'
'Yes, please. I should like to meet him,' Anna said, 'and your father definitely will.'
'I told Dad it was serious a few days ago,' Susie said. 'He asked and I told him Jack was the one I wanted. He said it was OK but that I should bring him round. We'll come on Sunday then.'
'Yes, lovely,' Anna said. Her anger had evaporated, leaving her feeling a little hurt and bewildered. She hadn't guessed that Susie resented her working that much. It seemed that Robbie was the only one who understood. 'I'll tell your father this evening.'
'All right.' Susie hesitated and then approached diffidently, kissing her mother's cheek. 'I'm sorry if I upset you, but I did try to tell you things, Mum, and you were always too busy. It just wasn't the same.'
'I'm sorry,' Anna said. 'I've been worried about Beth – and I've had to work full time to get it ready to hand over this weekend.'
'It isn't just now,' Susie said. 'It's been that way for the last couple of years.'
'Why didn't you say something?'
'Robbie said I was being selfish. He thought you should have some time to do what you wanted instead of just looking after us.' Susie coloured. 'Maybe I am a bit selfish expecting you to be there all the time.'
'No, love. It's what I wanted, but I thought I was managing it all. I didn't realize I was making you and your father unhappy.' Susie looked miserable. 'Don't be upset, Susie. I'm sorry if you felt neglected. I want you to promise that you will tell me in future if something is upsetting you. It doesn't matter what it is, tell me – and make sure that I listen.'
'Yes, all right.' Susie was smiling again now. 'It's going to be fun working at the hairdressing shop. I've had a look round and I know I shall love it. It has a special smell, and there's a buzz...'
'Well, if it is what you want,' Anna said and smothered a sigh. She wasn't sure what Tom was going to think about this, but she had come to terms with it. Susie's happiness was all that mattered when you got right down to it.
'I suppose you knew about this all the time?' Tom was annoyed, as Anna had feared he might be. 'I can't understand you, Anna. That girl is too bright to be shampooing hair for a living.'
'As a matter of fact I had no idea until this evening,' Anna said defensively. 'It shocked me and hurt me. She says that I never listen to her, but that isn't true. I've been preoccupied recently but…'
'Not just recently,' Tom said. 'You've been trying to do too much, Anna. It is a good thing the shop is finished.'
'Perhaps.' Anna felt a flicker of resentment. It was all right for everyone else to do their own thing it seemed but not for her. 'Oh, don't look at me like that, Tom. I enjoyed it and I tried to keep everything running the same here, but if I didn't manage it…' She shrugged, refusing to apologise yet again. 'I'm not going to get into that again. Gerry rang earlier. Beth is a little better and wants me to visit tomorrow afternoon. I said I would – and Robbie telephoned to say everything is fine.'
'I'm glad about Beth,' Tom said. 'She doesn't deserve all this – but then who does? Cancer is an awful thing.'
'Yes, and hers was much worse than we expected. I keep praying that the chemo will work.'
'That's all you can do,' Tom said. His gaze narrowed, becoming intent on her face. 'You mustn't be too upset, Anna. It isn't your fault.'
'No – but she's my best friend. I should have known she wasn't happy at the shop. If she'd told me, we might have sold the lease option earlier.'
'She probably didn't want to spoil things for you,' Tom said. 'You'll find it a bit slow to be at home all the time I expect.'
'I shall probably do some spring cleaning,' Anna said. 'Don't worry, Tom. I'll get used to it.'
'You're angry because I wouldn't give you the money, aren't you?'
'Disappointed,' she admitted. 'Not angry, at least not now. I've got over it and perhaps it was for the best.'
'It was too time consuming,' Tom said. 'Small businesses are like that. You have to be big enough to employ reliable staff or you are tied the whole time, the way you were. Give yourself a chance, Anna. I am sure you will think of something to keep you busy.'
'Amuse the child?' Anna couldn't keep the note of bitterness out of her voice. 'Don't look like that, Tom. I don't need sympathy and I don't want to be patronised, thank you. Maybe it was only a small business, but we were making a go of it – that's more than a lot of people can say these days. You might give me some credit for that!'
'You made a success of it because you never stopped working. Life is about more than that, isn't it?'
'You can talk!'
'Yes, I know I've been guilty of overdoing things,' Tom admitted. 'But I'm thinking of…'
Anna never learned what he was thinking of doing, because his mobile rang at that moment. It was work and by the time he came off, she was watching a film on the TV. Tom sat in his chair by the window and read the paper.
It was late when they went upstairs. Anna undressed and sprayed some of her favourite perfume all over. She put on some sexy pyjamas she had bought recently and climbed into bed. Tom disappeared into the bathroom. She heard the water running and knew he was going to have a bath, and that she would most probably be asleep before he came to bed. It had happened several times of late, and she couldn't help feeling that he did it deliberately.
Beth was sitting up in bed reading a magazine when Anna went into the ward. She was carrying a bag of fruit and a couple of books she thought her friend might enjoy. She deposited them on the bed, then leaned forward to kiss her cheek.
'How are you – if that isn't a stupid thing to ask?'
'Sore and fed up,' Beth said but she sounded so much like her old self that Anna was relieved. 'Thanks for coming, Anna.'
'Of course I came. I've only been waiting for permission.'
'I thought you might be a bit miffed with me?'
'It shocked me when you told me, if you're talking about the shop,' Anna admitted with a rueful look. 'But that is nothing compared to what you're going through. You know I care about you. We've been friends for so long.'
'I don't want all this to spoil things between us,' Beth said. 'I'm going to be tied up with this stuff the hospital are doing for some months but afterwards it will be the way it was – before the shop. We used to do lots of things, didn't we? Buying clothes in London, going to exhibitions, car boot sales, and coffee mornings…I missed all that, Anna. The shop was all right for a while, but it took up so much time.'
'Yes, I'm beginning to realize,' Anna said and pulled a face. 'It seems I let it interfere with too much.'
'You were so keen for it to be a success. I didn't want to spoil that, but when all this came up I knew I had to tell you.'
'I'm glad you did,' Anna said. 'I wish you had told me sooner.'
'I thought you would be disappointed?'
'I was but I shall get over it. Who knows, I may enjoy being a lady of leisure. But I'm more interested in you, Beth. Have they told you when you can go home?'
'Probably the end of next week,' Beth said. 'I have to have some more tests and talk to various people…' She grinned with genuine humour, which Anna had to admire. 'My hair is going to fall out so they tell me, and they will supply me with a wig, unless I would prefer to get my own – which I shall as soon as I can get out of here. And they are going to fit me up with new boobs. I've told them I want a double D cup. Why shouldn't I come out on the plus side?'
Anna laughed, because it was so good to hear Beth being positive.
'What does Gerry say about that?'
'Gerry has said a lot,' Beth said suddenly serious. 'Apparently he can't live without me so I've got to hang on in there –boobless or not, he thinks I'm the next best thing to sliced bread.'
'Oh, Beth,' Anna felt the relief wash over her. She hadn't been sure that her friend could take what had happened, and it was good to hear that the old Beth had somehow survived despite all she had been through. 'That's quite a compliment coming from Gerry.'
'I thought so,' Beth said and laughed. She put a hand to her chest. 'Oh, I mustn't laugh, it is too sore.'
Anna wanted to take the pain from her but there was nothing she could do and it made her feel useless.
'It will get better.'
'Yes, I know. I shall be having further treatment for a while, but Gerry wants to take me away as soon as he can. I told you that he is thinking about buying a place in Spain with that insurance money, didn't I? He says we can go for long holidays – probably three months at a time. We might even live there one day.'
'Shall you like that?'
'I'm not sure – but if it is what he wants I dare say I can go along with it. He has done what I wanted for most of the time we've been together. It may be a good thing if I sit back and let him take over for a while.'
'Only a while?' Anna's eyes twinkled, because that just wasn't Beth.
'Well, you know me,' Beth said. 'I'm not sure how long I can keep it up – bound to get fidgety after a few months. Besides, I want to see Julie and my grandchildren – the others too.'
'And is Gerry really going to retire?'
'He says he has made inquiries about taking early retirement. Of course he is nine years older than me so it isn't as early as all that – and I'm glad, Anna. I've realized how short life is. If I get through this I want to spend more time doing things together, whether it is here or in Spain.'
'Then you should,' Anna said. 'And I'm sure you will get through, Beth. You are so positive and I think that is half the battle.'
'That's what the specialist told me,' Beth said. 'I'm going to give it all I've got, no matter how wretched it is.'
'Brave girl,' Anna said. 'Now I have got some news for you, about Susie…' She changed the subject talking for another fifteen minutes before the nurse came to tell her she had to leave. 'I'll come again when they let me, Beth.' She bent down to kiss her friend on the cheek. 'Take care, love – and have a good read of those books. One of them is really good, lots of fun – the other one so so.'
'Right,' Beth pulled a face, 'any hints as to which one?
'You'll find out,' Anna said and laughed as she walked away. She was smiling until she had left the ward, and then she stopped leaning against the wall for a moment to steady herself.
'Are you all right?' a nurse asked her.
'Yes. I've just been visiting a friend – Beth Carter.'
'Ah yes, a lovely lady. Very brave, but I know how you feel seeing her that way. It is a shock to the system,' the nurse said kindly. 'But if the patients are in the ward it means they are on the way to recovery. Once they are out of the intensive care beds things start to improve.'
'Yes, of course,' Anna said and smiled at her. 'She looked so ill but she was being very positive. I don't think I could be in her shoes.'
'You would be surprised,' the nurse said. 'We all do what we have to you know. And chemotherapy helps a lot these days. Far more patients recover from cancer, especially certain types – like breast cancer - now. It isn't as bad as it used to be. Your friend will probably be fine once she gets over the operation.'
'Yes, I expect so.' Anna nodded and walked on. It had been hard not to cry when Beth was making jokes, but she had held onto her tears and she wasn't going to break down now. Beth was over the worst. There was no point in regretting what had happened to her, even though it was upsetting. Beth was facing the future as best she could, and Anna could do no less.
It had started to drizzle with rain. Anna shivered as she ran for the car. She felt a hard knot in her chest, which was caused by her heightened emotion. She wished that she could somehow turn back time, make it so that Beth wasn't ill, but she knew it was impossible.
'Life can be a bitch,' she said outloud as she pulled off and then put her foot hard on the brake as she saw the car reversing out opposite her. She pulled on her handbrake, trembling, tears running down her cheek. 'Damn it! I'm not going to cry.'
The driver of the other car got out and came over to her. She let the window down tentatively, half expecting him to be angry.
'Are you all right?' he asked, his voice soft and husky with a pleasant foreign accent.
'Yes. I'm sorry. I know it was my fault. I wasn't looking.'
'You are crying?' He looked at her so sympathetically that she had to catch back the sob that rose to her throat. 'You have bad news?'
His English was very good, but she thought he might be Spanish. He was also quite young, no more than early thirties, and very good looking with his dark hair and eyes.
'No, not really. My friend is getting better. I'm not sure why I'm crying – except that she has cancer and I wish I could make it so she didn't have to suffer so much.'
'Yes, I know. It hurts when you care for someone,' he said. 'Are you able to drive home – or should I phone for a taxi for you?'
'No, thank you, I shall be all right in a minute,' Anna said. 'You are very kind. Thank you for not being angry.'
'Life is too short to be angry over such a small thing.'
He smiled at her and walked back to his car. Anna watched until he had driven away. How nice he was, she thought, wondering who he was and why he was at the hospital. There had been something in his eyes that told her he understood grief. She suspected that he had lost someone recently.
Anna started the car again, being careful to look this time. She was feeling better somehow. The nurse was right. Beth was having all the treatment she needed and there was every chance that it would succeed. She had come through the operation and the first lot of chemo. Things should start to get better for her now, shouldn't they?
She could only pray, Anna thought as she drove home. She let herself in and turned on the CD player she kept in the kitchen, letting the music flood out as she started to prepare dinner. The house seemed big and lonely and she wondered what she was going to do with herself all day long in the coming weeks.
She'd told Tom she was going to spring-clean the house, but how long would that take? Everything was immaculate anyway.
Her thoughts returned to the near accident in the car park, and the way that young man had smiled at her. Most men would have told her she was an idiot or sworn at her, but he hadn't. She smiled to herself, thinking it was ages since she had felt attracted to a man other than her husband. He had been really sexy! Lean and strong, with that five o'clock shadow on his chin.
She laughed at herself for noticing. It wasn't often that she did notice other men. She really hadn't had many boyfriends, Anna thought. There was her childhood sweetheart and Tom. And that was about it. No one else had meant anything to her.
Harry…it was ages since she had thought about him, Anna reflected. For a moment she let herself think about what might have been if her parents hadn't split up. Would she have married Harry? Or would their love have died a natural death?
Hearing the front door open, Anna was startled out of her day dreams as Tom came in, throwing his briefcase onto the table and giving her a weary smile.
'Is there any chance of a cup of tea?'
'Yes, of course,' Anna said. 'You look tired, Tom.'
'I feel tired,' he said. 'I think I'll go and put my feet up. Bring the tea into the sitting room, will you?'
Anna frowned as he went out. It wasn't like Tom to admit that he was tired, but then she hadn't seen much of him recently, because of all the late hours. He really ought to slow down. He had looked exhausted.
She made the tea and carried it into the sitting room. Tom was in his chair, his head back, eyes closed, fast asleep she discovered as she placed a cup of tea on the table beside him. She decided not to wake him and took her own tea into the kitchen just as Susie came in.
'Your Dad is asleep in the other room,' she told her. 'He seems very tired so I have left him to sleep. Are you staying in for dinner this evening?'
'Jack is working late,' Susie said, 'and I want to wash my hair. What are we having?'
'Steak, jacket potatoes in the microwave and salad – or pork chops if you would prefer?'
'Haven't you got a frozen pizza?'
'I should imagine there is one if you look,' Anna said. 'But I thought I would cook more proper meals in future.'
'Not for me,' Susie said and pulled a wry face. 'I prefer something you just pop in the oven or the microwave.'
'And is that what you intend to feed to your husband when you get married?' Anna laughed as she looked surprised. 'I think you had better start taking some cookery lessons from me, Susie.'
'Yeah, all right,' Susie said, surprising her. 'Yeah, I should like that – on Tuesday mornings. That will be my day off. You could show me how to cook dinner on Tuesdays -– and Sundays sometimes. I could help you get dinner for when Jack comes this weekend, couldn't I?'
'Yes, if you really want to learn,' Anna said feeling pleased that she was at last making contact with her daughter after months of sullen looks and heavy silences. 'I should like that – and you can prepare the salad now if you like. I'll put the potatoes into the microwave and then have a look and see if Tom has woken up…'
'What would you like for your birthday this year?' Tom asked one morning over breakfast. Anna looked at him, feeling the question was a little premature, because there was another month to go before her birthday. 'I don't think you've mentioned anything?'
'No, I haven't,' Anna said. It was too soon, and besides, she wasn't particularly interested at that moment. Her thoughts were with Beth, who had been out of hospital for three weeks now, but was, according to Gerry, still feeling dreadful. 'There isn't anything I really want.'
Tom looked at her oddly, but didn't say anymore on the subject. Instead, he drank his coffee and got up to leave. 'I may be late again this evening.'
So what's new? Anna thought it but didn't say it outloud. Tom was working all the time lately, and despite her having given up the shop, he hadn't offered to take her when he'd gone away for a couple of days the previous week.
Oh, damn it! She wasn't going to brood on her life, Anna decided when Tom had gone. She had cleaned the house right through, and she had planned on going out that day. She had a few pounds left in the bank and she was intending to buy herself some new clothes. She might have her hair done in a London salon to give herself a boost, perhaps those highlights she had been promising herself.
She was on her way out when the phone rang. For a moment she considered leaving it, but found she couldn't. She picked up the receiver and heard Beth's voice at the other end.
'Anna, is that you? I was beginning to think you weren't there.'
'I was just on my way out. You only just caught me.'
'Just some shopping. Did you want anything?'
'Would you get me some bread and then come over?' Beth asked. 'I want to show you something.'
'Yes, all right. See you in an hour or so.' Anna sighed as she went out to the car, and then told herself off. Beth hadn't asked her to visit since that day at the hospital, because she was feeling so sick and ill. And the fact she had telephoned and asked Anna to come over meant that she must have been feeling a little better. Seeing her was more important than a day out in London.
'So what do you think?' Beth asked, turning round to face her wearing the stylish blonde wig. 'This one or the other?'
'The brown one is more your natural shade,' Anna said truthfully, 'but this one is fun. Which do you like yourself?'
'I wasn't sure, that's why I asked you to help me choose,' Beth said. 'They are both better than that awful thing the hospital gave me. Gerry said that looked as if I were wearing a dead rat.' She chuckled huskily. 'He saw this in a hairdresser's shop when he was in town and asked for a selection to bring home to me. They let him have four, but these are the best two on me – and if I buy one, they will style it to suit me. They offered to come here when Gerry explained that I had been ill.'
'That was good of them,' Anna said. 'Are the wigs very expensive?'
'Enough,' Beth said and pulled a face. 'A hundred and twenty pounds for the brown and another fifty on top of that for the for the blonde one – but that is because they are real hair not the cheap nylon you can buy anywhere.'
'Why don't you have both?' Anna suggested. 'The money from the agent has come through so you can afford them if you want.'
'Oh Gerry is buying whatever I choose,' Beth said and for a moment, as she laughed, it was almost the old Beth. 'He has been so good, Anna. You wouldn't believe the difference a little thing like having cancer makes in a man. He can't do enough for me these days. Honestly, I never knew he could be so macho. I'm not allowed to lift a finger when he is around. It is rather nice being taken care of - for a while anyway.'
'I suppose it gave him a fright,' Anna said appreciating the little quip at the end. Beth was feeling a little better at last. 'I'm glad Gerry came through for you, love. It has been awful for you, but it would have been much so worse without him.'
'I should probably have popped some pills and ended up in a box,' Beth said frankly. 'As it is I am thinking of a whole new life. We had some brochures through the post this morning.' She handed Anna a large brown envelope. 'What they are offering is an inspection flight to the Costa Brava to view some newly built properties. It is quite cheap for a short break, but it probably means they hound you to buy.'
'Are you ready for something like that?'
'Not just yet,' Beth said, 'but it is fun ringing up for these things and looking through them. I shan't go yet, though. I have to go back to hospital next week for more tests and possibly more treatment.'
'Not sure yet,' Beth said. 'They want to assess me before they decide…' she pulled a wry face. 'It may mean more chemo or the other thingy…radiotherapy. I'm not too keen on that one.'
'Right.' Anna nodded, because she had heard mixed reports about the treatment, but she wasn't going to tell her friend. 'And have they said when they will know if you're clear?'
'Not for a while,' Beth said. 'They may be able to tell if the treatment they've given me is working, but I shan't be in the clear for months…perhaps longer. But I don't let myself think about that side of things .'
'Sensible,' Anna said, knowing that Beth was lying through her teeth.
'Will you stay and have lunch with me?'
'Why not – providing you let me help you get it ready.'
'No problem.' Beth smiled at her. 'This is like old times, isn't it?'
'Yes.' Anna was pleased that she had come over. It was good to see Beth feeling more like her old self, and much better than going to London on her own. 'Yes, it is. What shall we have to eat?'
'French omelette and salad be all right?'
'Yes, fine,' Anna said. 'I'll make the omelette and you can sit at the table and prepare the salad…'
'Yes, ma'am.' Beth made a pretence of saluting her and they laughed together. Both of them were aware that they were lucky Beth had come through as well as she had. Anna felt that life was getting back to normal, not quite as good as it had been perhaps, but better than she had feared a few weeks previously.
It was a few days later that things started to go awry for Anna. She had done her weekly shop that Friday morning. She stocked the freezer with the pizzas her daughter enjoyed so much, and then popped the red wine and beef casserole she was intending for their evening meal into the oven. It would cook very slowly and be ready when Tom got home that evening, because he was going to be early for once. She had just flicked the coffee machine on when the kitchen door opened and she turned to see Susie and her fiancé enter.
'You're home early,' she said feeling surprised. She was happy to see them, because she had liked Jack when her daughter brought him to lunch, but as she looked at their faces she realized something was wrong. 'What is it? Why are you nervous, Susie?'
'We want to get married…' Susie began and then looked at Jack. 'Sooner than we planned – as soon as we can arrange it.'
Anna felt a tingle at the nape of her neck, because she knew why they wanted to bring the wedding forward. Susie wasn't eighteen for some months and she'd planned her wedding for Christmas.
'You're pregnant,' she said, seeing the confirmation in their faces. 'Oh, Susie love, you are so young. I know you love Jack and you wanted to get married anyway, but…'
'Don't be cross with Jack,' Susie begged. 'I forgot to get my pills and he didn't know. It is my fault, Mum.'
'You want to have the baby?'
'Yes, of course,' Susie said instantly. 'I'm not getting rid of it!'
'And you, Jack – it isn't too soon for you?'
'No, Mrs Hanwell. I would have married Susie ages ago and I like kids.'
'Where will you live? Your house won't be ready for several months, will it?'
'I've rented a place for us,' Jack told her. 'It belongs to my uncle. He lets it furnished so we don't have to buy anything until we're ready to move.'
'Babies are expensive…'
'That's fine,' Jack said easily. 'I earn good wages, Mrs Hanwell. Susie needn't work unless she likes.'
'I shall up to the time it becomes awkward,' Susie said. 'I'm enjoying it at the salon, and I might help out on a casual basis when the baby is born – just for a few hours now and then. Don't look like that, Mum. It isn't the end of the world. I am happy to have Jack's baby.'
'Then there isn't much I can say, is there?' Anna moved towards her daughter. 'Come here, love.' She gave Susie a hug and then Jack. 'If you two are happy so am I. All I want is for Susie to be loved and looked after.'
'You can rely on me for that,' Jack promised her, putting an arm about Susie's waist.
'What about Dad?' Susie asked, looking anxious. 'Will he give us permission?'
'You only need one parent to agree,' Anna said. 'I am sure he will anyway when he thinks about it, but I can't promise you that he won't be angry.'
'I know he isn't going to like it,' Susie said, 'but it happens all the time now, Mum – and to girls a lot younger than I am.'
'I know that. Your father knows that – but the others aren't his little girl.' Anna pulled a rueful face. 'I am making his favourite dinner tonight. I think you had better make yourselves scarce and I'll break the news.'
'That was lovely,' Tom said as he finished his meal. 'It's a while since you made a casserole, Anna – and the table set with flowers and candles. It is really nice – so what is the occasion?'
'No occasion. I just thought I would make things nice as you were coming home early.' She smiled. 'I'll bring the coffee through to the sitting room. Would you like a liqueur with it?'
'Now I know something is wrong,' Tom said and stood up, helping to clear the dishes through into the kitchen. 'What is it? You might as well tell me. Has Robbie got himself into trouble out there?'
'Robbie is fine as far as I know. He rang last week, as you know, and sounded on top of the world. No, it isn't him. Susie wants to get married next week by special licence.'
'She is pregnant,' Tom said, a flicker of anger in his eyes as he realized what was going on. 'That's what you're trying to tell me – the reason behind all this?'
'I was making the casserole anyway,' Anna said, resenting his suspicious look. 'But yes, she is pregnant. They have somewhere to live and they both want the baby so there isn't much we can do but let her have the wedding.'
'She is much too young to have a baby!'
'You wouldn't want her to have an abortion? Especially when she wants the baby?'
'What I want is for her to not be pregnant in the first place, but I suppose that is barking at the moon,' Tom said running his fingers through his thick dark hair. He looked frustrated and irritated. 'I'm not going to tell her I'm pleased, Anna, because I'm not. I am angry. I don't know what's wrong with kids today. Robbie goes off to the back of beyond in the middle of his course and now my daughter is pregnant. I'm not exactly dancing on the ceiling.'
'Neither was I when she told me,' Anna said, 'but I'm getting used to the idea. I shall enjoy making plans for the wedding and it will be lovely to have a baby in the family again.'
'Don't ask me for ten thousand pounds to pay for the reception! I haven't got that much going spare and I can't borrow any more for the moment.'
'They don't want a big wedding,' Anna said. 'Gerry said I shall have eight hundred pounds tax to pay out of the money I got for that lease, but that leaves me twelve hundred to spend as I please. I can pay for her dress and a small reception.'
'I'll give them a thousand for their wedding present,' Tom said frowning because her generosity left him little choice. 'I can't manage more at the moment, Anna.'
'Are things difficult at work?' She looked at him in concern, because this wasn't the first time he'd mentioned being short of money.
'Not difficult but not good…' Tom shook his head. 'It doesn't matter. I shall be sorted soon but I can't afford expensive weddings.'
'You don't have to,' Anna said. 'It is going to be register office and dinner for twenty of us at the Garden House Hotel. I've already rung and booked it, and it won't cost you a penny, Tom. I can manage it all.'
'That's the last of your money. You won't have anything left for yourself.'
'I've got Mum's inheritance.'
'When it comes through. You should telephone that lawyer. Some of them sit on the money for years – and he will want his fees. You don't really know what you will end up with there.'
'It doesn't matter. I shall ring him if I don't hear soon, but I'm not that bothered. I haven't tried looking for part time work yet, but I shall when I'm ready. I shan't have much to do here once Susie is married. Three days a week shouldn't make any difference to any of us, because I shall make sure I'm home in time to get dinner. You'll hardly notice I'm not here.'
Tom looked at her hard. 'You haven't forgiven me for what I said about the shop have you?'
Anna was silent for a moment, and then, 'No, not really,' she said honestly. 'I was happy, Tom, and I don't think my work interfered with what I did at home. If you'd told me in advance that you wanted me to go away with you, I could have managed it somehow. But that is over now and it wouldn't have been the same without Beth anyway.'
'How is she?'
'She goes into hospital for more treatment soon. I think she is dreading it, but she doesn't say much. I've been to see her a couple of times this week, and she tries to be cheerful.'
'She knows there isn't much point being anything else,' Tom said. 'She has to let the treatment happen whatever she feels about it.'
'Yes, I know.' Anna looked at him. 'Do you want that coffee or not?'
'Well, I have some work to do on the laptop, but yes, we'll have coffee first if you like.'
'Right. Leave this to me. I can finish when you're working. I think I shall have a bath and go to bed; I have a book I want to read.'
'Fine,' Tom said not looking at her. Anna guessed that his mind was already on his work.
She sighed inwardly. How long was this going to go on? Tom was like a stranger. They hadn't been out together for months, and they hadn't made love. She was going to have to speak to him about it soon, because she was beginning to think that he must be having an affair: there was no other explanation. However, she would wait until after Susie's wedding. It would be just them then and she might as well know where she stood.
It was hard work rushing around looking for a pretty dress for Susie and a new outfit for herself. They caught the train to London on the Tuesday morning. It was cutting things a bit fine, but Susie didn't want an elaborate lace or satin gown, because it wouldn't have looked right for a register office wedding, and she wasn't interested in all that stuff anyway.
They settled on an ankle length, sleeveless white crinkle cotton dress with the fashionable gypsy look. Susie bought some flowers for her hair and some pretty satin shoes. And, after looking at herself critically in the mirror and wishing she could lose half a stone before Saturday, Anna also bought a simple dress but in yellow. She decided on a tiny hat made up of feathers and a small cap, which perched on the back of her head and looked better than she had thought it would.
Afterwards, they shopped for more shoes and underclothes – Susie buying some Janet Reger stuff that was really expensive, which Anna paid for as a special present for her daughter.
'Are you sure you can afford this, Mum?' Susie asked. 'I know you gave Robbie the money for his trip and you aren't working now.'
'I can manage,' Anna told her with a smile. 'It doesn't matter if I go into the red at the bank for a while. I'm going to ring the lawyer's office, see if I can shake him up a bit. It's time Mum's estate was settled. You could do with your three thousand and I don't see why we shouldn't have it. Probate must have been granted by now.'
'Thanks for this anyway,' Susie said, looking in the smart carrier- bag again because she was excited by the sexy underwear. 'I shall wear this on my wedding night.'
'Your father is giving you some money, love. You can put it towards something you need when you move into your house. It isn't that much, but he may give you more later – or I shall when I can.'
'Jack isn't that bothered, Mum. His uncle is paying him good money to work for him, and he will be made a junior partner in the business when we get married – that's his wedding present to us. It means Jack will get a small share of the profits on top of his wages once a year.'
'That's good, love,' Anna said, feeling warmed by the excitement in her eyes. It was obvious that Susie was very happy, and that was all that any mother could ask. 'Shall we go and have something to eat now? And then we'll catch the train home. I've baked your cake, but I should like to get it iced this evening…'
Anna sat in the registry office watching her daughter answer her vows that Saturday. She felt a pang of regret as she thought of the white wedding she had hoped Susie would have at Christmas, but perhaps this was best after all. Susie didn't seem to have any regrets, and she had only tiny ones. Besides, the kind of wedding she had been planning would have cost at least ten thousand, and Tom didn't seem able or prepared to fork out for something like that.
She frowned as she glanced at him standing with his daughter. He was wearing a suit he'd had for at least three years, because he had refused to buy a new one. He was still angry with Susie and with her for some reason. She wasn't sure what she had done, but perhaps she didn't need to have done anything. If Tom wanted to be free of their marriage, any small thing would be cause for irritation to him.
Anna's throat felt tight as the emotion welled inside her. She closed her eyes against the sting of tears, and then opened them again, concentrating on her daughter. Susie looked so young and innocent, so beautiful.
Anna was reminded of herself as a young girl…of being sixteen again. Suddenly, she was remembering the night before she had parted from Harry. She had been crying and he'd had his arms about her, kissing her as she turned her tear stained face up to look at him.
'I love you, Anna,' he had said with a catch in his voice. 'I always shall. Don't forget me…'
She had forgotten him after the letters stopped coming, because she had been meeting new friends, getting on with her life, but now, watching Susie marry her only true sweetheart, Anna felt a pang of envy. Would she have been happier if she had married Harry?
She felt a lump in her throat, but the ceremony was over. She mustn't dwell on things that could not matter now. It was all so long ago, forgotten except for brief moments when she was feeling low. This was Susie's wedding, and a time to be happy.
The guests were following the bride and groom outside, showering Susie with environmentally friendly confetti, and taking pictures. Anna tried not to regret that there was no proper photographer. She took some with her digital camera, and Jack's uncle was taking some video shots.
There were actually more of Jack's family and friends present than from Susie's side. Beth hadn't been able to come, and Gerry had sent them a nice cheque but said he didn't feel like coming. Tom's parents were both dead, though his brother and sister-in-law had come down from London. They too had given Susie a cheque, because as they told Anna, she could spend it as she wished rather than be stuck with too many tea services.
Anna knew that her sister-in-law was hinting that Susie might want things for the baby, but she had avoided the subject. She had never liked Mary Hanwell much, but she wasn't going to get upset. She just smiled at everyone right through the reception.
She had paid for a nice lunch for all of the guests, which turned out to be nearer thirty in the end, but Jack's uncle had arranged to keep things going so that they had a disco in the evening. Anna noticed that he had been drinking steadily for most of the evening, and that he was giving her some meaningful looks.
It was around eleven, when she was preparing to leave, that she came out of the cloakroom and found Arthur Harrison lingering. She was about to say that it had been a pleasant evening when he grabbed hold of her and aimed a wet kiss at her neck.
Anna moved away from him sharply, feeling relieved that Tom had come looking for her. She went to him at once, and told him that she was ready to leave. He didn't say much, but she saw him shoot a look of annoyance at Jack's uncle.
'Was that idiot annoying you?' he asked as they went out to the car. 'I think he was drunk; he should have been with all he's been knocking back this evening.'
'It was just a bit of foolishness,' Anna said. 'You know how it is at a wedding. He paid for the drinks this evening so it is up to him if he wants to get drunk.'
'What is that supposed to mean?' Tom frowned at her. 'I suppose you think I should have paid for it?'
'I didn't say that,' Anna held onto her temper. 'We did our bit, Tom. Susie is quite happy. I should have Mum's money soon. I can help her if she needs anything – but she will have some of her own anyway.'
Tom didn't speak in the car going home. When they got in, he shut himself in the bathroom and she heard the water running. Anna used the downstairs cloakroom and then slid thankfully between the sheets. She was fast asleep when Tom came to bed.
It was Monday morning and Anna had been shopping. She was unloading the car when someone drew up in a big four-wheel-drive affair, and the driver got out, coming towards her with a broad grin on his face.
'Can I help you with those bags?' Arthur Harrison asked. 'They look heavy.'
'I'm used to it,' Anna said, not really wanting to invite him in. However, he picked up six bags in one hand and headed for the open kitchen door. She carried the flowers she had bought from the market and laid them on the sink. 'Did you want anything in particular?' she asked.
'I got a call from Jack this morning. Did you get one?'
'Yes, I did, last night actually. Susie rang. It seems that the holiday they booked so quickly in Tenerife, using the Internet, has turned out really well.' She sighed inwardly as he sat down at the kitchen table, knowing that she had to offer. 'Would you like a coffee?'
'I thought you would never ask,' he quipped. 'Nice house you've got, Anna. Who designed the kitchen? It's slap up to the mark.'
'I picked what I wanted,' Anna said. 'Tom had it put in for my birthday last year.'
'Yes, I thought it was you. You have great taste,' he said and grinned at her. 'You did the flowers for the reception I'm told.'
'Yes. I like flower arranging. I had a shop until a few weeks ago.'
'Susie told me. She said you hated giving it up but couldn't manage to run it alone.'
Thank you, Susie! Anna smiled and wished her daughter wouldn't be so free with her information.
'Yes, something like that. My partner was ill and wanted out.'
'Shame,' Arthur said, giving her a look that Anna correctly interpreted as amorous. 'Susie said you were thinking of doing some work from home, is that right?'
'I might. I'm not sure.' Anna placed a mug of coffee in front of him. She had made instant, because she wanted him out as quickly as possible. The looks he kept giving her were making her uncomfortable and she wished he hadn't arrived at the wrong moment.
'I shouldn't mind putting some work your way,' Arthur told her. 'We like to have fresh flowers in our show houses, you know. We have a standing order at a florist in town – but I could change if you were interested?' He raised his brows and she knew that he wasn't talking just about the flowers.
'I'm not sure that I am,' Anna said keeping her voice deliberately flat. She didn't want to encourage him, but she didn't want to offend him either. 'I may be going away more in future. I couldn't take anything on on a regular basis.'
'Pity,' he said and drank his coffee. 'It would have given me a good excuse to call on you regularly …and not just for the flowers.' He grinned at her cheerfully. 'You're a good-looking woman, Anna. I like a lady with a bit of flesh on her.'
Now she was definitely going to stick to her diet!
'Thank you for the compliment,' Anna said, wishing she could throw him out. 'You are Jack's uncle and I don't want to be bad friends – but frankly I'm not interested.'
'Fair enough,' he said seeming to take it in good part. 'But if you change your mind – about the flowers or anything else - you know where to find me.'
'I'm flattered, Arthur,' she said. 'But the answer is no and it isn't going to change.'
He nodded, got up and walked to the door. 'Pity…' he said and went out.
Anna wasn't sure whether to be furious or amused. He just wasn't her type. He was probably about Tom's age, but a couple of stone heavier and too obvious for her liking. For a moment she was angry, but then she decided that it was funny, and she was laughing as she went to answer the phone.
It was someone offering to give her a special deal on a new kitchen, which she treated with the contempt it deserved by replacing the receiver sharply. As she was returning to the kitchen, she heard the post come through the door and went to pick it up. There were a couple of circulars, a postcard from Thailand, which she read with enjoyment, and a letter addressed to her. Opening it, she discovered that the solicitor had written to say he had just received probate and would be sending cheques to her, Susie and Robbie in the next few days.
Anna was pleased as she put the letter to one side and took another look at Robbie's card. He had chosen one of an exotic temple and scribbled a few words on the back. She realized that he had posted it weeks ago, and she'd talked to him since. He emailed once every few days, and phoned her at least once a fortnight, which was all she could ask for, Anna thought as she loaded the washing machine.
She went out into the garden to hang some washing out that she had done earlier, hearing the phone ring from the bottom of the garden. She decided to let the answering machine take the call, because she knew from experience that she wouldn't make it in time. When she got in and pressed the button, she heard Tom's voice and frowned.
'Just to let you know I shall be late again this evening, Anna,' he said. 'So don't get anything ready for me please. I shall have a snack here somewhere. And I have a golf weekend coming up so could you make sure that my things are ready, because I need to leave early on Friday morning.'
'Yes, my lord and master,' she said, feeling angry. Was that all she was these days, just someone to give orders to on the end of the phone?
She went into the kitchen, feeling ready to spit. It was the outside of enough! She had been putting off that talk with Tom, because she hadn't wanted a row, but now she had finally had enough. It hadn't seemed so bad when she was working, but these days she had so much time on her hands. She hated the thought of a weekend all alone. She couldn't even see Beth, because she was going into hospital again. She expected to be having more treatment and didn't want visitors other than her husband.
'Damn you, Tom!' Anna said and threw the mug Arthur Harrison had used at the door. It smashed into pieces and made a mark on the door, which caused her to burst into tears. 'Damn you…'
Her gaze fell on the letter from the solicitor, and all at once she knew what she would be doing that weekend. She was damned if she was going to sit at home and wait for Tom to remember her, because he wouldn't anyway. All he wanted was his clothes washed and ironed and his meals ready when he chose to come home. Well, there had to be more to life than that, and she had an alternative.
Anna had been putting off going down to her grandmother's cottage in Wiltshire. It was built close to the River Avon, which divided the village of Downton in two and it was years since she had been there. Her grandmother had died soon after she married Tom, and her Aunt Mary had inherited the cottage, which she had let on a regular basis. When Sheila had inherited the cottage from her sister, who had never married, Anna had offered to go and take a look, but Sheila had not wanted her to get involved.
'I'll just let it like Mary did,' she'd said, and she had until the agent told her he couldn't let it again until some repairs were done.
Anna looked in the phonebook. She had rung the agents several times for her mother, and she rang them again now, arranging to pick up the keys for that weekend.
'The electricity won't be on, Mrs Hanwell. Would you like me to ring them for you and have it reconnected?'
'Yes, please, as soon as possible please.'
'I doubt if they can get it done before Monday at the earliest. I can give you the name of a decent bed and breakfast if you like?'
'Yes, that will be lovely, thank you. I'll ring them myself and book in for two nights, and I'll pick the keys up on Saturday morning.'
'Fine. I'll have them waiting for you.'
Anna shut off, feeling pleased with herself. It was the first positive thing she had done for herself since she learned of Beth's illness. The closure of the shop had left her hanging in limbo. She had been hurt that both her husband and Susie seemed to think she had selfishly neglected them, but she was angry now.
Susie was married and Tom seemed to imagine he could treat the house like a hotel. Well, she wasn't going to sit around all day and twiddle her thumbs this weekend! She would drive down to Wiltshire and take a look at the cottage. If she could afford to have the repairs done, it would provide her with a source of income – which she might need if she left Tom.
She felt a shiver run down her spine. It was the first time she had allowed herself to think about anything as final as that, but it might be for the best. If Tom wanted a divorce she wouldn't have much choice. She could only think that he was bored with their marriage. It had been going on for weeks now…if she was honest it was much longer.
She had begun to suspect something had changed some months ago, almost a year if she thought about it. Tom had started working late more often, and then there were all the times he went away alone, either for his golf or his work. It had to mean there was someone else.
Anna felt sick and cold all over. She had been trying not to think about it for weeks, but now it had sneaked up on her and she couldn't help but know that something was wrong. Tom didn't want to make love to her, and he had always been very keen on that side of their married life. She would be an idiot not to know that there was another woman. She brushed the stupid tears away angrily. Crying wouldn't do any good.
She would go and buy a couple of videos to watch that evening, and have a coffee somewhere. It would be better than sitting here feeling sorry for herself.
'You're what?' Tom looked at her the next morning when she told him what she had planned. 'It's a long way to drive, Anna. Why don't you wait until I can come with you?'
'I am perfectly capable of driving myself,' Anna said. 'You are going away for the weekend and so am I – what is the difference?'
'I'm not saying you shouldn't go…'
'Just as well, because I'm going whatever you say,' Anna told him. 'Your things are packed and ready. I shall leave just after you tomorrow, so don't expect me to be here if you ring over the weekend.'
'If that's what you want.' Tom shrugged his shoulders. 'I thought you didn't like driving long distances.'
'I can stop for a while and have a break,' Anna said. 'In fact I can do whatever I like; there will be no one to worry about except me. And that makes a nice change.'
'In that mood are you?' Tom looked at her, hesitated and then shrugged his shoulders. 'We need to talk but I haven't time for this now. Maybe next week.'
'If you can spare the time,' Anna was saccharine sweet.
'Spare me the wronged wife bit,' Tom said. 'I just haven't time for it. I shall be back by ten this evening.'
'Oh joy,' Anna said. 'I shan't wait dinner.'
Tom threw her a look of dislike and walked out. Anna felt horrible, because she didn't enjoy rows. Not that it was a row really, just sniping at each other, something they seemed to do all the time lately. It would do her good to get away, she thought. It might do Tom good to discover that she wasn't always there when he needed something.
Anna was in bed when Tom came in that night. He was later than he'd said he would be, and she had given up on him, wanting to get an early night because of the long drive in the morning.
He put the small light on beside the bed when he came in. She heard him getting undressed, though she kept her eyes shut tight, feeling the bed move as he slipped in beside her. He turned to her, dropping a kiss on her shoulder. She thought he might have been drinking because she could smell whisky on his breath.
'Are you asleep?' he whispered, stroking her bare arm.
Anna kept her back turned and she didn't speak to him. He wanted to make love, tonight of all nights! After months of ignoring her. She wasn't interested. There was too much between them, too much that needed to be said – and too much that had already been said.
'Go to sleep, Tom. I'm tired and I want to get an early start.'
'Anna…' His hand tightened on her arm and she thought he was going to insist, but then he removed it and turned away. In a few minutes he was asleep and snoring softly, but she wasn't…couldn't sleep. She was angry with him for expecting her to just fall into his arms when he was late and tipsy if not drunk, and she was angry with herself for refusing.
Anna had made coffee and packed her bags into the car by the time Tom came down that morning. He looked awful, as if he ought to be sleeping late rather then setting off for a golf tournament.
'You look terrible,' she said. 'Where did you get to last night?'
'I forgot that one of my colleagues was leaving to get married,' Tom said looking sheepish. 'I was finishing work when I got dragged to the leaving party. I didn't want to go, but she was a good secretary so I had to put in an appearance for a while.'
'It must have been more than a while,' Anna said. 'I could smell the drink on your breath last night.'
'Yes, I think I had a bit too much,' Tom said. He looked at the toast she had made for him and pushed it away, but drank his coffee. He seemed startled when Anna picked up her jacket and shoulder bag. 'Where are you going?'
'You know where I'm going,' Anna said. 'Just put the things in the machine, Tom. I'll see to it when I get back.'
'You're going just like that?'
'Well, you have to leave soon yourself.' Anna dropped a kiss on the top of his head as she passed his chair. 'Have a good weekend.'
'Anna…' She ignored the appeal in his voice. She had left everything ready for him. It wouldn't do him any harm to see to himself for once, she thought steeling herself as she went out.
She felt a bit mean as she drove off, because she had never let Tom go away without checking he had everything he needed, but she was angry with him. The way he had touched her when he came to bed the worse for drink; it was almost insulting, as if he'd had to get drunk before he could make love to her. Maybe she was making too much of it, but she couldn't help herself. Tom had been taking her for granted too long and she wasn't prepared to put up with it anymore.
She put on her dark glasses, settling down to what was going to be quite an experience for her. She had never driven to Wiltshire on her own before, usually sharing the driving with Tom on extended journeys – but she was going to have to get used to it. If they split up, she would have to learn to do a lot of things for herself.
Anna felt a tight sensation in her throat and chest, and knew that she wasn't ready to think about a separation just yet. She still cared for Tom – at least she thought she did – but she didn't want to live the way they had been living for the past few months. It was unfair to her, and in a way to Tom himself.
He was right about one thing. They needed to talk, and perhaps they would after this weekend, Anna thought. Her act of desertion might shake him into realizing that he hadn't been fair to her recently, and if it didn't…well she would have to think things through, be sure what she wanted to do. It would be stupid to rush into a separation if it wasn't what she wanted deep down.
The ache in her chest began to ease as she drove, finding that she was enjoying the sensation of being independent, able to do exactly as she pleased for once.
The journey had been less stressful than she had feared, Anna realized as she approached the cottage later that day. She had stopped for coffee and a sandwich on the way, but when she reached Salisbury she had got a bit lost, because it was years since she'd visited and there had been a lot of changes. She'd decided to phone the estate agent on her mobile for instructions, pulling over into a garage forecourt. He soon put her right and ten minutes later she was entering his office.
'It is good to meet you at last, Mrs Hanwell,' he said shaking hands and smiling. 'I was sorry we couldn't go on letting for your mother, but these days we have to meet certain standards, otherwise we should have the council on our necks.'
'Yes, I understand,' Anna said. 'It was a pity that my mother didn't feel like bothering with it, but she felt it was just too much trouble.'
'And now you are going to decide whether to let or sell I understand?'
'It depends on how much needs doing to make it habitable. I'm not sure I can afford to do everything.'
A few minutes later, Anna had the keys in her bag and was heading towards Downton, which was about six miles away – a bit less to her grandmother's cottage because it was not in the village itself.
She had to stop and ask people for directions twice, but at last she found herself driving up the narrow lane that led to Rosemary Cottage. It looked a bit neglected, especially the garden, Anna thought as she pulled into the driveway. She had decided to take a look at the cottage before booking into her hotel, which was situated just outside the village on the Salisbury road.
Her first impression of the house was that it would need quite a bit spending on it. The lock on the front door opened easily enough, and she could smell a faint odour of perfume as she went in, which came from a bowl of dried rose petals on an oaken chest in the hall. Most of the furniture was years old, some of it oak and a few pieces might even be antiques. There was a horrid modern settee covered in a lurid orange and red pattern in the sitting room, which she would get rid of if she decided to keep the place.
The wallpaper was very old fashioned and ugly, but it looked to be in good condition; she had thought it might be hanging off the walls with damp, but everywhere downstairs was dry. The kitchen was antiquated: there was just no other word for it. The old sink was cracked and stained; there was a cooker that looked as if it had come out of the ark and the fridge was so filthy it looked as if it ought to carry a health warning. The agent had told her that the sink and fridge were two of the things that she must have changed, because they put everyone off.
Going up the stairs, which creaked and felt as if they moved a bit under her feet, Anna discovered that one bedroom had a wet patch all down the outside wall at the back of the house. The paper had fallen off here and there was green mould on the old plaster. It looked like a big job, and that made Anna's heart sink, because it might be too expensive for her.
'Oh dear,' she muttered outloud as she rubbed some of the mould off with a piece of paper. 'That looks bad…'
Tom could be right about selling for whatever they could get, she thought as she looked in the bathroom and saw that the basin and toilet were both cracked. The bath itself was Victorian in style, might even be genuine, she imagined, and in perfect condition, except that it needed a clean. She liked that bath, and though it might be nice to soak in. The room itself was large, much bigger than most bathrooms of today, and she could imagine what it would look like if she could afford to do it the way she would like, with vanity units and built in storage cupboards.
How much would it cost to put the worst of the faults right? Anna made a list of what she could do herself, and what she couldn't. She could wallpaper and paint herself, and she could tackle the overgrown garden – but the damp, the new plumbing and units were beyond her. She would have to get an estimate from someone, probably a local builder, though she wasn't sure if there was such a thing.
She spent almost an hour looking round, peering into cupboards and deciding that one of the main tasks would be to clear a lot of the old stuff out. It looked as if it had accumulated for years, and some of it had clearly belonged to her grandmother. No one had ever bothered to sort the place out, which was a shame because it could be lovely.
Anna went outside, walking round the house. She looked up at the back bedroom, noticing the black marks on the wall where the water had seeped into the bricks over time. She thought it might have come from a broken guttering but wasn't sure: she would need to ask a builder for his advice.
Getting into her car she drove to the small guesthouse where she had booked her stay. Situated a few miles out of Salisbury, it was neat and clean, and she discovered that she had a kettle and a teapot in her room, which meant she could make herself a cup of tea at night if she wanted. She unpacked and then went down to have tea in the hotel lounge. She was able to order crumpets and honey, which would be enough for her until breakfast.
After her meal, which had been nicely prepared, she decided to drive into the village. The Borough was the medieval part of Downton, built the guidebook told her by the Bishop of Winchester in the thirteenth century. Two rows of lovely old houses, separated by a stretch of green, gave it a picture book appearance. The River Avon divided the village itself, and there was an old tannery built on the banks.
Anna parked her car and walked as far as the church, which was a mixture of styles, built over a period of time reaching from the twelfth century into Victorian times. There was also an eighteenth century house and several other interesting sites well worth a visit another day, but it was getting dark and she didn't want to take a wrong turning at this hour. So she drove back to her hotel and went into the reception area.
She asked if she could have a drink before she went up to her room, and the friendly receptionist told her that she would serve her tea, coffee or hot chocolate.
'I'm afraid we don't have a licence for alcohol,' she said. 'My advice is to try the Bull Inn just up the road another time. They have a pleasant little bar in there and you can get a nice meal if you fancy it.'
Anna thanked her, asked for hot chocolate, and was told it would be brought up to her room in ten minutes or she could have it in the lounge. She opted to have it brought up and was running a bath when the drink arrived. She thanked the girl who had brought it up to her, taking the mug with her into the bathroom, and then sank into the warm water, sipping her drink as she relaxed. It was good to have a soak and she stayed in the bath for some time. She had left her mobile in the bedroom and it rang once, but she didn't bother to get out to answer.
When she eventually tore herself from the comfort of her bath, she saw that a message had been left on her answerphone. She retrieved it, discovering it was from Tom.
'I'm sorry, Anna,' he said. 'Sorry about last night and this morning.'
Anna frowned, because he hadn't sounded a bit like himself. She put the phone beside her bed, wishing that she had taken it into the bathroom with her, but she hadn't expected Tom to ring her.
It was a bit strange being in a hotel bedroom by herself. She was used to being alone at home, but this felt different somehow and she was glad that she had brought a book to read in bed. However, she fell asleep after reading a few pages, probably because she was tired from the long drive.
Anna returned to the cottage in the morning. She spent a couple of hours looking round the rooms again, thinking about what she would like to have done if she could afford it, and then she went out into the back garden. It was a long, fairly narrow garden, enclosed by fences and trees, and it led down to the river, though there was a fence and a gate that could be locked to prevent people coming into the garden from the riverbank.
She unbolted the gate and walked down to the river, standing for a moment in the sunshine, watching some swans glide by and looking across to the opposite bank. There was a hotel just across from where she was standing and people were sitting at little tables drinking, and, looking back towards the cottage, just down from her, she could see other gardens like the one that now belonged to her.
Her cottage! Anna smiled to herself as she walked back through the garden. The old rose coloured walls looked pretty in the sunshine, and she imagined them with trailing roses and clematis growing up under the windows and round the door. For a moment she saw it as it could be instead of as it was at present.
The garden was better than she had thought the first time she saw it, and she imagined that one of the tenants must have enjoyed looking after it. It would need some attention; weeds were choking the flowerbeds and the lawn needed cutting but there was nothing that she couldn't do herself with some determined effort.
She went back into the house, and then left by the front door, locking it after her carefully. She would like to keep it if she could, but it depended on how much it would cost to get the renovations done – and then she would have to buy furniture, though some of the oak stuff was worth preserving.
She got into her car and set off for the hotel where she planned on having her lunch, but then stopped as she saw the small shop selling newspapers, food and postcards at the side of the road. She would buy a card for Beth, and a newspaper. As she entered, she saw that there were small cards pinned to a notice board just inside the door. She stopped to read them out of curiosity and saw that they were offering items for sale or gardening services. Right at the bottom was a card that caught her eye; it was from someone offering to do small building jobs and repairs. She took out her mobile and keyed in the telephone number before going to the counter to make her purchases.
'Do you know of any local builders?' she asked the woman behind the counter. 'Is the man advertising for work reliable?'
'That would be Enrique,' the woman said with a friendly nod. 'He's lovely. There are a lot of builders in the area, but I don't know any of them. Enrique fixed my guttering when it was leaking. If it's just a small job you want you could give him a ring. He's very obliging and he doesn't charge the earth.'
'Yes, thanks, I shall,' Anna said and smiled.
She paid for her purchases and left, driving the short distance down the road towards Salisbury until she came to the three hundred-year-old inn where she intended to have her lunch. It was a lovely building all beams and dark oak, and she could smell polish and flowers as she walked into the small bar and ordered her lunch. She asked for a drink to be brought to her table, and sat sipping her glass of wine as she got her mobile out and keyed in the number she had taken from the small shop. It was a moment or two before someone answered, and she smiled as she heard the warm, deep voice with its faint accent.
'Good afternoon,' he said. 'This is Enrique Cordoba, may I help you?'
'My name is Anna Hanwell. I've just seen your card in a shop and I have a cottage that needs some renovation. I'm not sure whether it would be too much for you. I think there are several problems, and to be honest I am not sure if I can afford to have them fixed…'
'Perhaps I should look at the house,' he said and she thought there was a smile in his voice. 'Where shall I find you?'
'It's called Rosemary Cottage and it is just outside Downton – down river really. We're on the opposite side to a pub with tables set out by the river.'
'Ah yes, I think I know it,' he said surprising her. 'I walk past that stretch of the river sometimes – to watch the swans. My son likes to feed them with stale bread.'
'They do at a certain age,' Anna agreed. 'I used to take my children for walks by the river in Cambridge. That is where I live, and the cottage has recently been left to me. I should like to renovate it if I can, but…well, perhaps you could look and give me your opinion. When can you come?'
'This afternoon at…say four o'clock? My babysitter will be here by then.'
'Yes, that's fine,' Anna said. 'I have nothing else to do.'
She ended her call just as the waitress brought her the salad and cold chicken she had ordered. It was served with warm rolls and fresh butter and tasted rather nice, because of the dressing that was offered with the salad. She enjoyed her meal but refused a sweet, because she had decided to continue the diet she had started for Susie's wedding.
Anna lingered over her coffee and then decided to do a little bit of sight seeing, driving into Salisbury to wander round the old city with its beautiful cathedral and interesting buildings. She was back at the cottage at a quarter to four, and had just discovered an ancient lawnmower in the garden shed when she saw someone walking towards her. He was about six foot in height, of medium build, and attractive with his dark hair and eyes. He smiled at her as she went to meet him, and she was conscious of a feeling of recognition, though it took her a few seconds to make the connection. And then it came to her.
'I almost bumped into you in the car park,' she said. 'Addenbrooks a few weeks ago…'
'Ah yes, I remember. You were upset, because you had been visiting a friend. How is your friend?'
'Beth has gone in for tests and more treatment,' Anna said. 'I'm not sure yet, but I think she was a little better last time I spoke to her.'
'We must pray for it,' Enrique said and she had the oddest feeling that he really meant it. 'And now you will show me your most charming cottage, Mrs Hanwell?'
'Do you like it?' Anna asked, pleased by the warmth in his voice. 'I know it is in a bit of a mess, but I think it could be pretty.'
'It has its own charm,' he said, standing back to look at the cottage. 'I have never been inside, but I am about to – yes?'
'Yes, of course. But first I want to show you the worst thing.' She pointed to the damp patch on the back wall. 'I think that looks serious. The plaster on that bedroom wall is green with mould.'
'It is the fault of that broken guttering and the pipe that comes down,' Enrique told her. 'No problem. It will take two or three hours to mend at the most – a new piece of guttering and a section of pipe. The inside wall may need re-plastering. Again, it is a small job of a few hours.'
'Really?' Anna was surprised and pleased. She had thought it would be an expensive job. 'So that is the main structural thing. Inside it is a matter of replacing sinks, toilets, things like that – and some new storage.'
'We shall see,' Enrique said. 'I think we do that chimney – see the slight bend? It needs re-pointing, and there are a few tiles dislodged on the roof.'
'Oh yes, I see.' Anna followed his pointing finger. 'I hadn't even noticed those. Well, you had better come inside, see what you think.'
They went into the house through the kitchen. Enrique looked around at the old dressers and the cracked sink, his eyes narrowed as he took in the various faults and problems.
'Would you like to keep it traditional or rip everything out and put in new?'
'I'm not sure,' Anna said, thinking of the kitchen at home that had cost Tom twenty-five thousand pounds. 'I would like a traditional look if possible. Perhaps a new dropped sink …and I suppose we could strip that pine dresser down. It might be all right under those layers of awful paint. And I think the Rayburn works. I remember that my aunt had it put in new about five years ago.'
'I think the dresser will be good, better than you will buy today – and you could strip out those old cupboards. I know where you can buy old pine doors to replace the painted ones; also there are other pieces of stripped pine that cost a few pounds only. You could make this kitchen look warm and happy for perhaps a thousand pounds…a bit more for the fridge and tiles for the floor, of course.'
'You're joking?' Anna stared at him. 'I thought it would be far more.'
'I do not think it is necessary to spend a fortune to make a home,' he said. 'Today people want shiny and new, but it is not so comfortable I think. For less than two thousand pounds you can have a kitchen to make you smile as you work.'
He was making her smile inwardly. His English was perfect, but sometimes the words came out a little oddly, and that made Anna want to laugh, but with him not at him.
'And now we look upstairs, yes?' He led the way up, testing one or two of the treads. 'The boards are loose – and on the landing. Ah, the bathroom. A new sink and toilet…'
'I should like a vanity unit and some cupboards with louvered doors.'
Enrique nodded his approval. 'To make advantage of the space, I think. The bath is good – a little clean and it is perfect. You would like tiles or wallpaper here?'
'Tiles round the bath and the sink, but a nice, clean looking wallpaper would make it warmer, because it is a big room to tile.'
'Tiles are too cold,' Enrique said. 'So now we look at the bedroom wall, no?'
'Yes, please.' Anna followed him. She was crossing her fingers mentally, because she really wanted him to take on the job. It looked as if she might be able to afford to have the work done, and the more she talked to Enrique the more she wanted to keep her cottage and see it come to life, be the home it once was and could be again.
Enrique looked at the wall, then rubbed the mould off with his fingers and pushed them into the plaster, which was soft in places.
'This wall must be stripped back and re-plastered. It will take three days I think, because the first application must dry out, but it is a small job. I think the whole thing is done in two weeks, upstairs and down, and then you decorate, yes?'
'Apart from the kitchen, most of it is just decorating downstairs,' Anna said. 'Could you do some of the decorating as well?'
'My charge is eight pounds an hour. You tell me how much you want me to do,' he said. 'I think for the labour you pay seven, eight hundred pounds – however long it takes. You buy the things you need and you choose what to spend.'
'That doesn't sound very much,' Anna said honestly. 'I was expecting you to charge more.'
Enrique laughed, his eyes bright with amusement. 'You are supposed to tell me I am too expensive and ask if I can do it for less. You do not know how to bargain I think.'
'Am I?' She shook her head, an answering smile on her mouth. 'I don't think so. I know a good deal when I see one – when can you start?'
'On Monday,' he said. 'I have a new girl to look after Milo. For now a friend is with him, but she works during the week.'
'How old is Milo?' Anna asked.
'He is almost five. In the autumn he goes to school but for now he is at home with me. I take him to the nursery in the morning, but the afternoon he must spend with me, until the girl comes – if she comes. The last one was not reliable.' He was silent for a moment, and Anna saw a flicker of grief in his eyes. 'My wife was killed when he was almost four – for the past year we have been without her. It was a car accident when she visited her parents in Cambridge. Fortunately, Milo was at home with his grandmother. Sarah had been shopping.'
'I am so sorry,' Anna said. 'It must have been terrible for you. Is that why you were in Addenbrooks?'
'They try hard to save her,' he said, a break in his voice. 'I go back to thank them – I raise money for new equipment by sponsored walk; it is not much but it is something.' His perfect English had gone out of the window as emotion came in, but he made a quick recovery. 'So, I shall begin the work on Monday, yes?'
'Yes, please,' Anna said, making a quick decision to change her plans. 'I'll meet you here and we'll sort out exactly what I need.'
'First I do the gutter and the chimney,' he said. 'You will stay here or go home?'
'I think I shall stay for a few days,' Anna said. 'I want to order the things I need and see you get started. I may go back to Cambridge for a couple of days, but then I think I shall move into the cottage. I can get the Rayburn going and most of the house is dry anyway.'
Anna rang Tom on her mobile that evening.
'I got your message,' she said. 'I was in the bath when you rang.'
'I shouldn't have had so much to drink…'
'Forget it,' she said. 'It doesn't matter. I wanted to let you know that I'm staying down here for a few days longer to sort out the cottage. I've had someone to look at it and it isn't going to cost as much as I thought to put it in reasonable order.'
'Be careful with people you don't know. They will take you for a ride, Anna. Why don't you leave it until I can come down?'
'He is very reasonable – eight pounds an hour for labour, and he has some good ideas. I've given him the go ahead, Tom. That's why I'm staying for a few days, to buy the things I need for the kitchen and the bathroom. Most of it is superficial anyway -–decorating and cleaning. I can do quite a bit myself.'
'Is it really worth it?' Tom said. 'Why knock yourself out for a few pounds a week in rent?'
'I'm not sure I want to rent it…'
'What then? You aren't thinking of keeping it?'
'It's lovely down here, Tom. We could use it for holidays.'
'I'm not sure we can afford that, Anna. It's one of the things I want to talk to you about.'
'We might let it for holidays so that we can have it some of the time,' Anna said. 'We'll see how things work out. I might manage to keep it if I go back to work.'
'Anna…' Tom hesitated, seeming uncertain. 'I can't talk like this. When are you coming home?'
'I'm not sure. I'll ring and tell you when I'm ready.'
Tom's phone went dead and Anna knew he wasn't pleased with her answer. He had wanted her to give in as she usually did, but this time she wasn't going to. She had fallen in love with the cottage, and she wanted to stay here to at least see the work started.
On Sunday morning she had a good breakfast and then bought some snacks from the shop where she had discovered Enrique's address. The woman hadn't forgotten her and they had a friendly chat before Anna left. She drove to the cottage, intending to do some gardening while the weather stayed nice. She spent the morning clearing weeds, chopping down nettles and pruning some overgrown bushes.
At lunchtime she stopped and ate her snacks, and then went into the cottage. She had a good idea how to use the Rayburn, because Beth had one in her home, and they had talked about it on several occasions. She had even thought about having one in her new kitchen, but decided to go for the very modern look. This time she was reversing to traditional country style and she felt pleased with the idea; it would be warmer and cosier than the kitchen she had at home, more suited to this cottage.
She had found some logs and a bit of smokeless fuel in the garden shed and she spent half an hour or so giving the Rayburn a clean before lighting a fire. It looked entirely different when she had finished, and she realized that like most of the cottage it was simply neglected. She felt very pleased with herself when it worked and the fire started to catch, because she hadn't been sure that it would. She looked round for other jobs she could do, but decided against cleaning too much, because there was bound to be dust and dirt when Enrique started pulling out the sink and old cupboards. She would ask him how best to get rid of the old ridge and cooker too.
However, she decided to clear out the cupboards and fill some of the plastic bags she had bought that morning. She would put them out for the refuse collectors, who, she had learned came on Tuesday mornings.
She began upstairs in the bedroom that was more or less usable. She thought that all this one really needed was a new wallpaper, some paint and a carpet. Once the built in cupboards were clear, she carried the rubbish downstairs and put it under the porch at the back. The bedstead was old fashioned with wooden ends and a spring base, but the mattress was missing. Anna tested the springs and decided to order a new mattress the next day. Once the bed was ready to use, she would be able to stay here.
She stripped a few pieces of wallpaper, but they tore and she realized that she needed a steamer to make a decent job. She would get one somewhere, she decided, and start up here while Enrique was working outside.
Deciding that she had had enough for one day, Anna returned to her hotel and had a nice soak in the bath. Afterwards, she went out for a meal at one of the pubs nearby, and then retired to bed early, falling almost instantly asleep.
Beth telephoned Anna the next morning, as she was about to buy the stuff she needed from a DIY store at the edge of town.
'Where are you?' Beth asked. 'Gerry said Tom told him that you had gone away on your own for a few days. Is something wrong?'
'No, everything is fine,' Anna lied, pushing her trolley to one side out of everyone's way so that she could talk. 'I'm out buying a wallpaper stripper and some paint at the moment. I'm down at Gran's cottage, and I've found someone to do the building work for me.'
'You've been thinking about that for a while,' Beth said. 'Is it going to be very expensive?'
'Not as bad as I feared,' Anna said. 'I might even have a bit of the inheritance going spare. Enrique is going to take me to a pine shop this afternoon – they strip old stuff down and he says it is inexpensive so we'll see what I can afford.'
'Who is Enrique?' Beth was curious. 'He sounds foreign?'
'He is Spanish,' Anna said, 'and he is lovely, Beth. Really friendly and nice.'
'Yes, in a quiet way.'
'Sounds dangerous. Are you sure you should be alone with him?'
'Beth! It isn't like that. He is nice and I think he is honest. He isn't charging too much, and he has good ideas. I thought it would cost a fortune to make the kitchen look anything, but he seems to think we can do a complete job for under two thousand pounds.'
'Highly suspicious,' Beth said darkly. 'He is after your body, Anna.'
Anna chuckled softly. 'I should be so lucky.'
'Anna Hanwell, I am shocked, really shocked.'
'Oh Beth love, I do miss seeing you. How are you now?'
'I feel bloody awful,' Beth said. 'They gave me some new therapy a couple of days ago and I've been as sick as a dog, but they seem to think it is what I need so I shall have to shut up and put up.'
'Oh, Beth,' Anna was choked. She wanted to tell her friend how much she loved her, how brave she was, and how desperate she was for her to recover, but of course she couldn't. 'You will love the cottage, Beth. I'm going to keep it if I can. Tom isn't keen, but if I can get a part time job I shall manage it myself.'
'How are you and Tom these days?'
'I'm not sure,' Anna said. 'Why do you ask?'
'Gerry says Tom has changed. He thinks there is something on his mind. I wondered if you knew what it was.'
'I think he may be having an affair. He says he wants to talk when I get back, but I'm scared, Beth. Things haven't been wonderful between us, but I'm not sure I'm ready for a divorce.'
'You're not serious?'
'It seems the most likely thing. Gerry is right; Tom has changed this last year, but particularly the last few months. I think he wants out. He has mentioned what we might get for the house if we sold it.'
'Oh, Anna,' Beth was shocked. 'That's awful, love. I thought you two were the forever kind.'
'So did I,' Anna said and sighed. 'Maybe I have got it all wrong. It may be all in my mind.'
'I hope so,' Beth said. 'Oh, I shall have to go. They want to take me down to the torture chamber again.'
Anna laughed. 'Hang on in there, love. I'll come and visit you when I get back.'
She ended the call and finished her shopping, deciding to buy the paper for her bedroom ready to begin once she had steamed the old stuff off. She took everything out to the car and arrived back at the cottage a few minutes before Enrique, who had to drop Milo off at the nursery before he came.
She had left the Rayburn on low overnight and it was still alight, so she banked it up and put the kettle on to boil for a cup of tea or coffee. There were a few decent mugs in the dresser, and she had bought all the things she needed from the shop on her way here.
When Enrique arrived, she had the kettle boiling, but he refused to have a drink, saying that he wanted to get on with the outside work.
'I shall fetch Milo from the nursery at one o'clock,' he said. 'Will you mind if I bring him here? The girl who was to come cannot make it for another three weeks. She wants to go away with her boyfriend. I told her not to bother. I shall find someone else, but in the meantime I shall bring him here, if that will not annoy you?'
'Why should it?' Anna said. 'I can keep an eye on him for you. He will be all right with me when I'm in the garden. Besides, we are going to the pine shop this afternoon.'
'Yes.' He smiled at her. 'It is best if I can work all day, but in the mornings he is always at the nursery, and a friend will have him at night if I want to work later.'
'I shall look forward to seeing him,' Anna said.
He had obviously collected the bits and pieces he needed to repair the guttering and she left him to it, deciding not to bother about a drink herself until later. She went up to the front bedroom and started steaming the walls. The tool she had bought made light work of it and she had finished most of the room when Enrique came to tell her he was off to fetch his son.
'The outside is finished,' he told her. 'Soon the damp will be no more. You open the window in there for a while and let the sun in, yes?'
'Yes, of course,' Anna said. 'I should have thought of it myself.'
She went into the back bedroom and opened the window wide, and then went downstairs and out to the back of the house, looking up at the guttering. Enrique had put a new stretch of guttering, which matched the existing, all the way along the back, and replaced the downpipe. He had also done something to the chimney and replaced the missing tiles on the roof.
She could hardly believe that he had done so much so quickly. From her limited experience most of the builders Tom had employed in the past would have made the work stretch over two days. She felt pleased with herself for having found Enrique, and began to sing to herself as she went in. She made a pot of coffee, which she left to keep warm on the Rayburn while she drank hers and ate a sandwich she had made for herself.
She was washing her mug in the sink when Enrique returned with a small boy in tow. Anna smiled as she saw how much like his father the child was, though he had a softer, gentle look that caught at her heart, making her want to put her arms about him and hug him. The thought of his mother dying in a car crash brought a lump to her throat and she smiled at him.
'Hello, Milo,' she said. 'Did you enjoy yourself at school today?'
He nodded solemnly, his dark eyes wide with wonder. Anna looked at Enrique. 'There is some milk in the pantry or a Coke – if he would like it? The milk has kept quite cool this morning.'
'He will have the Coke,' Enrique said. 'If you don't need it?'
'I made coffee. There is some left if you would like a mug?'
'I have a flask with me. You do not need to offer me drinks.'
'But I should like to,' Anna said. 'You must have worked so hard this morning.'
'I enjoy working,' he told her. 'It is what I am here for, but I have time for the coffee now – if you will have one with me?'
'Yes, of course. I've finished stripping the paper upstairs, and after we've been to the pine shop I'm going to sit in the garden for a while. I might do a bit of weeding. Milo can help me if he likes?'
The child looked at her for a moment and then nodded. Anna smiled. It was natural that he should be shy, but he seemed quite at home as he perched in one of the old-fashioned chairs.
'What do you do at school?' she asked, knowing that the pre- school nursery staff were usually excellent at giving the children plenty of activities.
'Painting and building bricks,' Milo said. 'I like painting best.'
'He gets that from his mother. She was artistic.'
'Yes, I see,' Anna said. 'Well I might find some crayons for you another day, Milo. You can draw some pictures for me, can't you?' He nodded again, and then concentrated on his Coke.
Anna was just about to ask if they had eaten when someone knocked at the door. She went to answer it and discovered that the man from the Electric Board had come to re-connect her. She went outside with him to the meter and talked to him for a few minutes, because she had wondered what the wiring would be like. He told her that a new meter had been put in a couple of years back when the electric had been brought up to standard.
Anna blessed her aunt for having had the wiring seen to because that was another thing off her list. She told Enrique when she went back into the kitchen and he said that he had checked it himself. She switched on the light in the kitchen and a moment or two later it came on.
'That is a relief,' she said. 'Now I can sleep here.'
'You intend to sleep here?' Enrique looked at her. 'Are you sure?'
'Tomorrow I am going to buy a mattress and some bedclothes,' Anna said. 'I shall stay at my hotel tonight, but I would rather be here. Now that I have the electricity on I can work in the evenings if I feel like it. I know it won't be easy for a while, but I can manage.'
'You will tire yourself too much.'
'No, I don't think so,' Anna said. 'This afternoon I am going to have a lovely time in the garden with Milo -–and this evening I shall start painting the skirting board in my bedroom.'
'I shall be here earlier in the morning. Someone is taking Milo to school.'
'I'll give you a key,' Anna said. 'There are three of each, because the agent had extra made so you can let yourself in when you like.'
'Tomorrow, I start on the kitchen, but now we go to the pine shop.'
They went outside to Enrique's van, because it would be more useful if they wanted to bring anything back with them. It was in good condition, though obviously a few years old and a little untidy inside. Enrique lifted his son into the front cabin so that he sat between them, and fastened a belt he had had installed especially for his son. Anna climbed in beside the boy.
The pine shop was on the way to Salisbury, but down a country road. It was more of a barn than a shop, and crowded with things that had been rescued and recycled from floor to ceiling. At first she was bewildered because there was so much, but it was exciting poking about in odd corners, discovering treasures. Anna found an old scrubbed pine table that she liked immediately and some chairs that matched; they were half the price she would pay for new and far less than she had seen in similar shops in Cambridge. Enrique discovered a beautiful old corner cupboard with carved arches over the shelves and brass handles on the drawer, also a butcher's block as well as some hanging shelves and two units that would fit either side of the new sink. Everything had been stripped down and cleaned, and would be simple to keep that way. Anna swooped on a lovely grandfather's chair with a rocking action and knew she had to have it, even if it put her a bit over budget.
However, Enrique bargained for some minutes with the owner, who seemed to know him well, and she ended up getting everything for seven hundred and twenty pounds, two hundred less than the marked price. She couldn't believe it, still flushed with pleasure as the two men carried the smaller things out to the van and loaded them inside; the heavier pieces would be delivered to the cottage the next morning.
'That was fantastic,' she told Enrique as they drove away. 'How did you manage to get him down to that price?'
'We know each other,' Enrique said. 'What we paid was the right price, but some people will pay more.'
'I can't believe we got all that…' Anna looked at him. 'You must let me pay you some commission?'
'I bargained for you,' he said with a shrug. 'You are happy. I am happy. Tomorrow I shall start on the kitchen. You will need this if you are to stay there.'
'Thank you,' Anna said. She couldn't say much more because she was a little emotional. He was being so generous and so kind to her. They had been gone no more than an hour in all, and Enrique took his jacket off ready to start as soon as they got back to the cottage.
Anna took Milo out into the garden, walking round with him, showing him the flowers and talking about the garden statues that had been there for as long as she could remember. There were stone rabbits and a squirrel, and a donkey and cart, all of them weathered to a smooth finish. Milo had started to talk to her now, and when they heard the familiar ringing tones of the ice cream van he looked at her with an expression she interpreted correctly.
'Shall we buy some ice-creams?
Anna took him by the hand going out into the lane. As soon as she saw it was safe from other traffic she let him run to the van, telling him to choose what he and Enrique would like, choosing a soft vanilla for herself and paying from the money in the pocket of her jeans.
They waved goodbye to the man selling the ice-cream and returned to the cottage. Enrique had just brought out some junk he was clearing from the kitchen, and was persuaded to sit with them in the sun while they ate the delicious treat.
Anna was sorry when he said he must return to his work. It had been such a pleasant day, one of the best she had spent for sometime and she couldn't help wishing that it could go on.
But then, she laughed at herself, dismissing her feelings as foolish nonsense. Enrique was here to do a job and nothing more. In a few weeks he would be gone, and her life would be back to normal.
But that didn't stop her enjoying herself for the present, she decided as she did some weeding in the garden, Milo following her like a little puppy, talking to her now about his school and his friends. For Anna it was like being a young mum again, a time that she had enjoyed to its full, never hankering for a career or even thinking of a job until her children were grown up. She was happiest caring for a home and family, Anna realized. Yes, she had loved being at the shop with Beth, but having time to spend doing as she liked was good too.
Anna went shopping in Salisbury the next morning, buying a decent mattress and the bedding she would need for a short stay at the cottage. She had plenty more at home that she could bring down another time. She also bought a nice large fridge, one of the double-sided ones that she knew were American in style. She had always wanted one, but it wouldn't have fitted into her pristine kitchen at home.
Seeing an offer of thirty percent discount in the store if two items were bought together, she lashed out on a washer/dryer, because she knew the kitchen wouldn't hold two machines. She added a toaster, a kettle and an electric grill to her shopping list, feeling guilty because she was using her credit card until her inheritance came through. At another store, she picked up some brochures of the kind of doors she wanted for her vanity unit and storage in the bathroom, but she didn't buy anything because she suspected that Enrique would know where to buy them for less.
On the way back she bought bacon, eggs, bread and butter, and milk, also soft cheese and tomatoes. She'd had a light breakfast at the hotel before she paid her bill and left, but she would need food later in the day. The store had promised to deliver her refrigerator that afternoon, which meant she would be able to get more food in once it was up and running.
She also bought an armful of flowers from the market, because they were selling two bunches for the price of one and they would make the cottage feel more like home. She had discovered loads of vases in one of the kitchen cupboards and would enjoying arranging them.
Returning to the cottage with her shopping, Anna discovered that Enrique had the kitchen almost completely stripped out. She had to go upstairs to fill her vases and the kettle from the bathroom tap, but it didn't matter because the sooner everything came out the sooner all the things they had bought could be brought in.
She had an electric kettle now, which she took into the sitting room. It was easier to make the tea in there and she wouldn't be in Enrique's way. She took a mug through for him, standing it on the windowsill and smiling inwardly as he accepted it without protest.
'You have been busy this morning,' he said. 'Already the cottage begins to come alive.'
'I started wallpapering my bedroom last night,' Anna said. 'I shall do some more when I've had my tea. They have promised to bring the mattress this afternoon – also the fridge and washing machine. Perhaps we should leave them out in the garage until the floor is tiled?'
'I have some good news for you,' Enrique said with a smile. 'When I started to take up the old linoleum I discovered that the original floor was laid with quarry tiles. If you like them they will scrub up and can be treated to look almost like new again.'
'No?' Anna was surprised. 'Really? Why on earth would anyone want to cover quarry tiles?'
'Perhaps because they take more effort to keep nice – or a fashion years ago?'
Anna went to the corner of the kitchen where Enrique had begun to peel back the old linoleum and looked. It was true enough. The tiles were filthy dirty but she could see the original reddish brown colour and knew that they could look beautiful when they were clean and polished.
'That means we shan't have to buy new tiles, doesn't it,' she said as she returned to him. 'Can the fridge come straight in when they deliver?'
'I will prepare a space for it,' Enrique said, and finished his tea. 'You will excuse me now please? I will do this and then I must go to fetch Milo.'
'Yes, of course. I could take him to feed the swans this afternoon – if that's all right? I have some bread left over from yesterday.'
'If it is no trouble?'
Anna laughed, the warm, husky sound more appealing than she knew. 'It would never be any trouble to me to look after such a lovely child, Enrique. I love children anyway.'
She left him to his work and went up to her bedroom. She had finished one wall and she thought she would probably get another done before lunch. She planned on a sandwich, because she wasn't bothered with eating loads of food: there was far too much going on for her to think about being hungry.
Anna took Milo for a walk by the river when he arrived. They had a large bag of bread, which they broke into small pieces, feeding the family of swans that drifted by in a stately cortege. And then a group of ducks who squabbled noisily and came out of the water, surrounding them and pecking at Anna's jeans until Milo threw the bread into the water, making them go back after it.
'Well, they are greedy things, aren't they?' Anna said, laughing because Milo had enjoyed himself so much, and the sound of his delighted squeals had made her feel as if she were young again, sweeping her back to the days when she'd taken Robbie on a similar errand in the park on fine days.
They were about to turn away when a large, friendly dog came bounding up to them. Anna felt a bit nervous as the child reached out to it, but she need not have worried for it was a softie and clearly enjoyed being patted, because it licked Milo enthusiastically on his face and hands. They were having a lovely time when a man came walking
up to them.
'I hope my dog isn't annoying your little boy?'
'No, of course not,' Anna said, feeling flattered that he should have taken Milo as her son rather than her grandson. She looked up at him, seeing a tall, well built man with a thatch of reddish brown hair and brown eyes. A little tingle went down her spine as his eyes met hers briefly and she felt that she knew him, though for the moment she couldn't recall where they had met.
'Good grief,' he said looking surprised. 'You can't be – but I'm sure…Are you Anna Buckden? Your parents lived in Salisbury but your grandmother lived somewhere around here…'
'Yes,' Anna said, feeling the shock run through her as she understood why she had felt that she knew him. 'Harry – Harry Crabbe?'
'You do remember! Well, by all that's wonderful. You've hardly changed at all, Anna. I mean, I know we are both older but you look the same – just as lovely as ever. In fact I think you are even more beautiful than you were when you broke my heart.'
'Oh, Harry,' Anna laughed. Her hair had fallen across her face as she played with Milo, but she brushed it back, enjoying the feel of the sun on her head and the way he was looking at her. 'I'm sure I have changed. It's a long time…so many years since my mother took me away. And you broke my heart when the letters stopped coming.'
'Well, you know how it is,' he said and grinned at her. He still had the same charm of manner that Anna remembered from school, though his features had coarsened a little and his hair was thinning slightly at the temples, but he was still attractive. 'I was young and there were a lot of local girls around. You weren't here, Anna.'
'No, I suppose that is fair,' she admitted. 'It is lovely to see you again, Harry.'
'Come and have a drink with me one day,' Harry said. 'Make it lunch and we can talk about old times. Does your son go to school?'
'Milo isn't mine,' Anna said. 'I'm just looking after him for a friend. My children are grown up.'
'Like mine I expect,' Harry said. 'They fly the nest as soon as they can but that's the way of things. I'm alone now – what about you?'
'No, still married.'
'Is your husband with you?' He frowned. 'Are you doing the cottage up? I heard that someone had been looking round it.'
'Yes, I've got someone working on it for me.'
'You should have come to me, Anna. Building is my business – that and the hotel just outside Salisbury. It's popular with tourists and does all right, but the real money is in the building. If this chap of yours lets you down, give me a bell.'
'Thank you,' Anna said, 'but I don't think he will.' She held out her hand to Milo. 'I have to get back now. It was lovely to see you.'
'It's great to see you,' Harry said. 'Are you coming into Salisbury any day soon? I should like to give you lunch at the hotel.'
'Not for a day or two,' Anna said vaguely because she wasn't sure it was a good idea. 'Perhaps next week if I'm here.'
'Give me a buzz,' he said and handed her a card. 'That is my mobile. It will always get me. I never switch it off…well, hardly ever.'
'Thank you.' Anna slipped the card into the pocket of her jeans. 'Bye for now then.' She took Milo's hand and began to walk back to the cottage.
As they walked up to the rear of the house, Anna saw that Enrique had stripped to the waist. His skin was a lovely olive tone and his shoulders rippled with muscles. He had dashed a bucket of water over himself, and was shaking his hair, which was a little longer than most men she knew wore theirs these days. She was reminded vividly of the old Tarzan films and smiled inwardly.
Milo broke from her and ran to his father, who swept him up and swung him round, causing the boy to shout with laughter. Anna stood watching them, seeing the love between them, feeling a pang for the woman who should have been there to care for them both -–and for herself. Once upon a time Tom had been like that, eager to see her, to play with his son and daughter, eager to make love.
Anna felt something in her stomach and knew that it was desire. It was very strong, curling through her, making her swallow hard, wanting to be held and kissed, to lie beneath that firm muscular body…she cut off her thoughts swiftly. She was too old for Enrique and besides, it would spoil everything if she started having forbidden dreams about a man she enjoyed having as a friend.
'We had a lovely time with the ducks,' she said as she walked up to them. 'I am going to make a cup of tea – and I thought I would fry some eggs and bacon. Would you and Milo like to eat with me? We can have it on the table in the living room.'
'Not this evening,' Enrique said. 'I have a prior arrangement for tonight – but if you were to ask another day…'
'Then I shall,' Anna said. She walked into the kitchen, looking about her with pleasure. Enrique had used his time well. He had replaced the sink with a new one – or a new old one as he had called it, because it was the same kind of deep stone basin with a single curving tap that could provide either hot or cold water. The two pine units with marble tops that they had bought to go either side were free standing and in place, and the floor had been scrubbed clean. Her new American fridge was standing in a corner where an old cupboard had been, but the washing machine was in the hall, because Enrique wanted to do the plumbing for it before bringing it in. 'Oh, this looks so much better!'
'The floor needs to be treated, but this I shall do when you are gone for a day or two so that it has time to dry. You will go home this weekend, yes?'
Anna admitted it to herself reluctantly. 'Yes, I shall go on Friday I think. That will give you plenty of time, won't it?'
He nodded, his dark eyes intent on her face. Anna felt that he could see into her mind, that he saw more than she might wish him to know -–could sense her loneliness.
'You will come back next week?'
'Yes,' her voice was firm, strong now. Whatever the weekend brought she was going to return. 'I want to do so many things here. And I can't wait for the kitchen to be finished. I think it is going to be wonderful.'
'I think it will be good for you,' Enrique said. 'It will be warm and natural and you will make it your own.'
His compliment warmed her inside. Again, she felt the spiral of desire curl through her stomach and knew that she was feeling good about herself. She had fallen into a rut when she and Beth were running the business. Perhaps Tom was right when he said that she had been too immersed in the business; it had taken up most of her time. She'd worked hard to keep the house right, but she hadn't had time for the extras.
She smiled as she waved Enrique and Milo off in the van, and then went into the house. She cooked bacon and eggs and took them into the sitting room to eat. Afterwards, she heated water and washed the bits and pieces. Enrique was going to get the Rayburn to heat water for the kitchen, but for the moment she was using the immersion heater, which only heated the bathroom supply.
After she had cleared her things away, she went upstairs and began papering the walls of her bedroom. The mattress had been delivered while she was out, and when she had finished all but two strips of one wall, she ran herself a bath and went to bed, simply pulling the duvet over her because she was so tired.
In the morning, Anna was up and had finished the wallpaper in her bedroom before Enrique arrived. She hadn't bothered with a cup of tea, but made coffee as he came in, because she knew he preferred it. He told her that he had been to buy some pine doors, and some strips of pine, which he was going to use to make shelves.
Anna rinsed the cups and left him to it. She hadn't bothered to make up the bed the previous evening, but did so now. She had painted the skirting board white in the bedroom, and the paper was a pale duck egg blue, plain but with an indefinite squiggle. She had decided to ask Enrique to put new doors on all the rooms so she wasn't going to paint them. She couldn't do the back bedroom because Enrique had to do the repair work first, and the same applied to the bathroom. The hall downstairs was her next project, she thought, because she couldn't do the stairs herself. Enrique would add that to his list when he got to it.
However, she decided to do a shop for simple food, and to buy a few things she wanted to furnish the cottage. She drove first to the barn that Enrique had taken her to earlier that week. The owner recognised her and smiled as he asked if she was pleased with her purchases.
'Yes, I think so,' Anna said. 'I'm looking for a few things for my bedroom now. I should like a pine chest, a couple of bedside tables and a wardrobe. Do you have anything like that?'
'You want everything in pine?'
'Yes, please,' Anna said. 'I'm going to do both the bedrooms in pine I think, and the kitchen – but I have some nice pieces of oak for the living room.'
'I get the idea,' he said. 'I've got a few things through the back that you might like. The wardrobe isn't new, but it isn't as old as the stuff you bought for the kitchen. The chest is an old one I stripped down, and there are two small chests to use by the bed. Have a look and see what you think.'
Anna looked and felt pleased as she saw that it was exactly what she needed to furnish the bedroom she was using, which had an ugly Edwardian wardrobe and a beech chest of drawers at the moment.
'Yes, I like everything,' she said. 'How much do you want for them?'
'I'm asking five hundred,' he said, 'but Enrique would have my guts for garters if I took that from you. Three hundred and fifty and I'll deliver myself and take away your old stuff if you like.'
'Thank you,' Anna said. She glanced round and saw a blue and white china jug and bowl. 'How much is that?
'The bowl has a hairline crack - I'll throw it in for nothing,' he said and grinned at her. 'The bowl may not hold water but if you want it for decoration it's OK.'
'I shall put flowers in the jug and heap glass pebbles up in the bowl,' Anna said. 'Thank you. When can you bring them please?'
'Tomorrow morning. Enrique will give me a hand up the stairs then.'
'Yes, I expect so.' Anna paid him and left feeling pleased with her bargain. She was enjoying herself and she knew that when she had her new furniture in the bedroom it would really begin to seem like a home.
She was back at the cottage before twelve with her shopping, which she unloaded into the fridge and freezer. Enrique had been fitting the washing machine and it was chugging away in the background as he tested it out.
She switched the electric kettle on and made coffee, but Enrique refused. He told her that he was fetching Milo a little earlier that day, because the nursery was closing for the afternoon.
Anna drank coffee and ate a rock bun before going into the hall. She moved all the bits and pieces through to the sitting room, and started on the wallpaper with the steamer. But when Enrique and Milo arrived, she cleared up the mess and then took the boy out into the garden. They pottered about together, picking the dead heads off the perennials and pulling a few weeds. Milo liked pushing the wheelbarrow, and Anna found that he was opening up more and more to her, telling her about his day at nursery school. They heard the ice-cream van come and went out to buy some cones, bringing them back to share with Enrique, who came out and sat on the lawn with them while they devoured the deliciously cool sweet.
'Are you going to change the garden at all?' Enrique asked. 'Some of these old shrubs could come out to make way for new ones…and I think that lilac tree at the bottom is dead.'
'Is it? What a shame,' Anna said. 'It used to be lovely in the spring years ago.'
She told him about the furniture she had bought and he nodded, smiling at her enthusiasm.
'You will make it a home,' he told her. 'When you came it had no heart but now it begins to throb.'
Anna felt her cheeks flush. She looked away because she didn't want him to know that his compliments had changed something in her. It wasn't only the cottage that was coming to life.
'I'm having fun,' she told him when she had conquered her feelings. 'It wouldn't have been possible without you, Enrique. I might never have found that barn – and I couldn't have afforded shop prices. I've seen pieces like the ones I bought today going for twice as much in Cambridge.'
'I too have seen them,' he agreed, 'but you must learn to bargain. It is more fun that way, and the dealers they respect you.'
'Your friend gave me a hundred and fifty pounds off without my asking. He said you would never forgive him if he charged me too much.'
Enrique laughed. 'I take many customers there. If he over charges them I do not take them again.'
'Yes, I see.' Anna watched as he got to his feet strolling down the garden to look at some roses. Milo scrambled up and followed, running at his father's heels like a little puppy. Her throat tightened with emotion, and she felt a pang of nostalgia for the past, for the lost summer days when she and Tom had spent lazy hours together in the sun with the children. Enrique was a simple, direct man, Tom very much more complex, and yet there were similarities. Perhaps that was why she had felt drawn to Enrique at the start.
She got up and went into the house. The kitchen was really coming together now. Enrique had put some of the shelves up and was in the process of fitting the beautiful old corner cupboard. It would look lovely set with blue and white china, she thought. And when the table was in she would have flowers in a jug. She would hang a frill of white lace across the top of the window, because it didn't need to be covered here. No one could see in from the river. She might buy something in Cambridge on Saturday, because she knew exactly where to get what she needed, and she could bring some things from home. Next week it would begin to look as she had hoped it might.
When Enrique came back after playing a game of football with Milo, she asked him if he would stay for supper.
'It is just pizza and salad – or an omelette if you prefer?'
'Will you let me make the omelette?' he asked and she nodded, her heart flipping as he smiled. 'Then we shall stay – if you wish it?'
'I should like it very much.'
Anna had bought a paper-lace cloth for the table in the sitting room. She set it with the plates, knives and forks, using the best ones she had for the moment. Soon she would have much nicer things, but the table looked pretty when she had finished, a small bowl of flowers in the middle and two scented candles.
Milo came running when she called that tea was ready. She had given him a thick, stubby glass with cold Coke, which he drank thirstily. Enrique served them all with the Spanish omelette he had made. Anna had buttered soft rolls and made a mixed salad, lightly tossed with dressing. Enrique tasted it by stealing a piece of rocket with his fingers, declaring it good. He helped himself to a good portion and ate with enjoyment. Anna noticed that Milo ate only a little of the salad that his father put on his plate, but he tucked into his omelette and she thought that it was a favourite with them at home, possibly something that Enrique was good at and easy to get ready.
'You make a good omelette,' she told him when they had finished. She had provided a light white wine for Enrique and herself, but she noticed that he drank only a sip. 'You didn't like the wine?'
'It is very good, but I do not drink when I drive.' Something in his eyes made her think that a drunken driver was the cause of his wife's death, and she nodded, understanding how he felt.
'Very sensible,' she said. 'Would you prefer Coke another time?'
'Please,' he said, accepting that there would be other times. Anna felt a tingle of pleasure. It was nice that they could be friends this way. She felt happier than she had for a while. She was sorry when at last he said it was time to leave.
The furniture Anna had bought was delivered the next morning, and she was pleased when she saw it all in place. Now she could bring clothes and linen here, and once she had a new carpet on the floor and bright curtains at the window…she frowned and pulled herself up.
Was she thinking of keeping the cottage? Anna was thoughtful as she got on with stripping the wallpaper from the hall downstairs. The choices she was making were for herself, for her own pleasure. The light colours she had planned in the bedroom would be foolish if she decided to let the place, and if she was going to sell…but of course she wouldn't sell. It was too peaceful here, too pleasant to let it go even if she got a good price once the jobs were finished.
She wanted to keep it. Anna realized that she had been planning to make it into a home for herself ever since she arrived. It was the perfect retreat for holidays and long weekends. In fact, its close proximity to Salisbury made it a nice place to live. She thought that she would be quite content here, especially if she could bring some things from home. There were a few things of her mother's in store that she had kept, though Susie had asked for the bookcase and the dining room table – but she wouldn't have room for that here anyway. The rooms were quite large but the ceilings were on the low side, and the windows small with leaded panes. She would have to be careful about how she furnished the living room. There were already several small pieces of oak, and she thought a colour scheme of crimson gold and cream would make it a warm and welcoming place.
Anna came out of her dreams as Enrique called out that he was going to fetch Milo from school. She went into the kitchen and made herself a cup of tea. She wasn't interested in food, though she nibbled a piece of celery as she returned to the hall and finished her work. She had cleared up when Enrique came back with Milo.
It wasn't as warm that day, a touch of rain in the air. Anna had bought some crayons and a colouring book at the little shop that sold things for the tourists. She gave them to Milo and he sat at the table happily for the next three hours, drawing her pictures of dogs, ducks and his father with a hammer in his hand.
Anna made tea and offered scones, cream and strawberry jam for tea, which both Milo and Enrique seemed to think was quaint, but showed evidence of enjoyment as they wolfed them down. Anna had two herself, but since she'd hardly eaten all day she thought she deserved a treat.
The next day was Friday, and she had decided to leave early in the morning so as to avoid the rush hour traffic through Salisbury.
'Will you manage Milo by yourself tomorrow?' she asked when they were ready to depart. 'I can go later if you wish?'
'I have a friend who will take him tomorrow afternoon. She does not work on Fridays. It is a good arrangement we have, and perhaps soon I shall find a reliable nanny for the afternoons.'
'You don't need one when I'm here,' Anna told him with a smile. 'I shall come down on Monday but it may not be until later in the day.'
'For one afternoon I can manage. Milo will help me.'
'I shall see you next week then.'
Anna felt a little sad as she watched her new friends drive away. She had had such a lovely week, and she wasn't looking forward to going home.
Anna had made a casserole of wine, chicken and herbs, and she had the table in the dining room set when Tom came in that evening. He looked at her oddly but didn't say very much until after she had given him a glass of wine.
'What is all this in aid of?'
'Well, I suppose you have legitimate cause to complain of neglect this week.'
'Are you going to keep throwing that at me?' Tom drank his wine and reached for the bottle, topping up his glass. 'All right, I apologise. What I said to you was unfair. You didn't neglect the house or me or the kids, but you were working too hard and you were tired a lot of the time. I didn't like seeing you like that, and I felt neglected even if I wasn't. I know I should have helped out when you wanted money for that lease, but I had agreed to pay off my overdraft more quickly than I'd anticipated at the start, and I had other expenses. But I should have done something to help.'
'I'm glad you didn't,' Anna said. 'You were right. I was tied to the shop. There was a lot more work than I realized when I took it on, and I wanted to make a success of it – which I think I did.'
'Yes, of course you did,' Tom said and sighed, ruffling his hair with his fingers. 'I was out of order and so was Susie. You were entitled to a life of your own, you're not our slave.'
Anna laughed. 'I don't think you could call what I do being anyone's slave,' she said, 'but I did enjoy the shop and I resented having it taken away from me in that manner. I'm over it now and I couldn't have worked on the cottage if I'd still had the shop.' A smile flickered in her eyes as she thought about the past few days. 'I'm really enjoying that, Tom, and I intend to go down again on Monday.'
'You're going to stop down there?' He frowned, clearly not pleased. 'Why can't you just leave it to the builder?'
'Oh, Enrique is getting on with his side of it,' Anna said. 'I've wallpapered my bedroom and bought a new mattress and some pine furniture. The floor has good, old boards, and I think I shall stain them, and have a large carpet square rather than fitted. I've also stripped the paper in the hall. Next week I shall paper and paint the skirting board, but not the doors. I'm going to have wood doors throughout the cottage.'
'Won't that be expensive?'
'Yes, but not terrifically so,' Anna said. 'Enrique knows where he can buy what I need and they are not as expensive as you would think. Besides, I got the cheque from the lawyer when I came home. I've been using my credit card and a few pounds I had left in the bank, but now I can bank Mum's money – and it's a bit more than I thought. The lawyer thought about six thousand, but when he sold those shares she bought some years ago, they fetched seven thousand instead of three. So I actually ended up with nine thousand instead of six after everything was settled, including his bill.'
'You won't spend it all on the cottage?' Tom frowned at her. 'Will you get enough for it to make it worthwhile?'
'I believe it is worth considerably more than you think,' Anna said. 'I haven't had it valued, but then, I don't need to – because I'm not going to sell.'
'What do you mean? I thought that was the idea – unless you've decided to rent it?'
'No, I don't want to do either,' Anna said. She bent down to take the casserole from the oven, the fragrant smell wafting through the air. 'Oh, this does smell lovely. I've been camping out this week so I thought we would have a treat tonight. As far as the cottage goes, I hoped we could use it for long weekends and holidays. The garden is close to the river, Tom, and it's lovely down there: pretty villages, Salisbury and the countryside all round there. We've never been that way much, but we should have.'
'I thought you preferred holidays abroad?' Tom looked thoughtful, annoyed.
'Yes, I do enjoy them. I loved that time we spent in Venice together, Tom – but I'm not that keen on beach holidays in Spain. I get bored with just lying in the sun all day. I do enjoy exploring new places, of course, particularly cities – but there's lots to do down there.'
'I like the sun,' Tom said. 'You can't rely on the weather in this country. Besides, you can't afford to keep it for holidays. It will cost a fortune in rates and heating. I think it is a waste of time spending money on it, unless you sell it for a good price. You could put the money in the bank and then you'll always have something when you need it.'
'I could find a job, just a few hours a week – but enough to pay the bills,' Anna said defensively. 'I might even let it out for holidays to people I know…' but she didn't truly want to do that. She was making it into a home for herself. 'You wait until I've finished it, Tom. You may change your mind.'
'I don't think I shall,' he said, 'but it's up to you. It's your inheritance not mine.'
Anna felt hurt. There was something so dismissive about his attitude, as if what she felt didn't matter. He had apologised for his behaviour over the shop, but now he was doing it again.
'We had better eat before this spoils,' she said, carrying a tray through to the dining room. She blinked hard, because she wasn't going to cry, and she wasn't going to let Tom's attitude hurt her either.
Anna packed several boxes and bags into her car on the Sunday afternoon when Tom was out. He had gone to a meeting at the golf club to discuss the finances, and it was almost nine o'clock when he got home. Anna had cut the lawn and done some weeding in the garden, and she saw Tom stop to look before he came in.
'You shouldn't have done that,' he said when he came into the kitchen. She had just switched the kettle on and was preparing a tray for tea. 'I was going to cut the lawn this evening.' He glanced at his watch and looked surprised, as if he hadn't realized the time. 'This thing needs a new battery!'
'It's nine o'clock. Besides, I knew you would be later than you expected so I did it,' Anna said. 'It is a lot easier with your mower than the antiquated thing at the cottage.'
'Have you been doing that as well?'
'Enrique helped me to get the mower started,' Anna said. 'It wasn't too bad really, because the last tenant must have liked gardening. It was actually just a bit of tidying up – though Enrique says one of the trees ought to come down and some shrubs could be replaced with fresh ones. I shall think about that when the cottage is finished.'
'He seems to have a lot to say for himself?' Tom frowned at her.
'Enrique?' Anna was surprised. Tom sounded jealous – or was that just annoyance because she was taking notice of someone else's opinions? They had always discussed things in the past, and more often than not she had let him have his way, perhaps too much for his own good. 'He has been very helpful, Tom. I don't think I could have afforded to do everything I want if I hadn't found him at the start. He is so talented, because carpentry, plumbing, it is all the same to him - but he works for a few pounds an hour and he knows lots of useful people. I bought the furniture for the cottage much cheaper than I would have here. You know how expensive the shops are in Cambridge.'
Tom glanced round the kitchen, his brows arched. 'Don't tell me you found something like this for a few thousand?'
'No, of course not,' Anna said and smiled. 'It wouldn't look right. I'm giving it a country look, something warm and comfortable…very different to this.'
'Are you tired of this then?'
She caught the inflection in his voice. 'This is a wonderful kitchen, Tom, everything I ever wanted – but it belongs in a house like this. A large family house…the cottage is different.'
'And it means a lot to you?' He sighed and looked odd. 'I think you are biting off more than you can chew, Anna. We can't afford to run a house like this and a country cottage, especially if…' He shook his head. 'I'm sorry, Anna. I have some work to do this evening. I thought I would be home long before this…'
'You said you wanted to talk this weekend – what about, Tom?'
'Look, I don't feel like it now, and I have to read that report for a meeting tomorrow morning. I don't want to get into an argument.'
Anna's eyes flashed at him. 'You had time for your meeting at the golf club, but you don't have time to talk to me. You haven't found time all weekend – so where does that leave me? Obviously I come behind work and golf…at the bottom of the list perhaps?'
'Don't be ridiculous,' Tom said. 'I'm tired, Anna. As a matter of fact I've resigned from my duties on the club committee. I just don't have time anymore, and I'm feeling pretty sick about things right now. I don't think I'll bother with tea, thanks. I would rather have a whisky.'
Anna watched as he went out. He helped himself to whisky in the sitting room and took it upstairs to his study. And that was the last she would see of him that night, she thought. It was a waste of time coming back for the weekend. She had shopped on Saturday morning, and caught up with the washing and ironing in the afternoon, while Tom watched cricket on the television. He had at least taken her out for a meal that evening, but you couldn't talk in a restaurant, not the kind of things she suspected Tom wanted to say to her. Perhaps that was why he had decided on a restaurant meal.
Swallowing her anger and the feeling of resentment building inside her, Anna went up to her bedroom and sorted some clothes she wanted to take with her to the cottage the next day. After she had taken them down, and squeezed them into the crowded car, she went up and ran a bath. She was feeling pretty wretched, and when Tom came to bed she pretended to be asleep.
She lay for some time, feeling resentful and miserable, but she had been working hard all weekend, and she was tired. Eventually she drifted off into sleep, dreaming something that made her murmur with pleasure and snuggle down further into the bed. In the morning when she woke the dream had vanished, but she had a slightly guilty feeling that it might have had something to do with Enrique.
Anna saw Enrique's van parked in the front drive when she got there that afternoon and her heart lifted. She braked and got out to open the boot, carrying the first of her boxes and bits to the house. She walked round to the back, and saw that Enrique was outside in the sun. He had carried the dresser outside in two halves and was working on stripping off the old layers of paint, wearing his old, much washed jeans and no shirt. The sight of his skin, glistening with a light sprinkling of sweat made her swallow hard. She turned away to hide her feelings and saw that Milo was playing in the garden quite happily with a ball attached to a bat. She waved to him and he waved back, but seemed content with his game.
'Hello,' she said turning back to Enrique and feeling happy as he smiled. 'Is it all right if I go into the kitchen now?'
'The floor is dry,' he told her. 'This is the last thing I have to do for the kitchen, and then I start upstairs, yes?'
'Really?' Anna was delighted. 'You must have worked hard this weekend. I didn't expect to find so much done.'
She went into the kitchen. The floor tiles were now a rich red colour with a lovely sheen, and everything she had bought was in place. Enrique had tiled a small area at the back of the sink in a terracotta, glazed tile, and the walls had been painted a soft primrose colour, exactly as she had planned.
'Oh, this is lovely,' Anna said as she looked round, feeling delighted with the way things had turned out. Enrique had used stained pine to fit small shelves and boards to make everything match in, and though most of the furniture was free-standing it had an intergrated look that was exactly what she had wanted without knowing it. 'You've made it all look wonderful. Even better than I had imagined.'
Enrique came to her shoulder to admire his work. 'You like? That is good. When the dresser is ready it will be finished, but it must dry and then I must varnish. Now I go upstairs and begin the back bedroom. It will make much dust so keep your bedroom door closed.'
'Yes, I shall. I'm going to bring everything in from the car first,' Anna said, and then I shall make some coffee. You will come down and have one?'
'Yes, if you wish,' he said. 'Do you need help with your parcels?'
'I can manage, thank you,' Anna said. She went back to the car four times, carrying in all the things she had decided would look better here than at home.
Some of the tableware had belonged to her mother; there was a beautiful set of blue and white earthenware, which would look wonderful on the dresser when it was ready. Sheila had hardly used it, because it had been a wedding present, and brought back memories she preferred to forget. There were also several items of terracotta that Anna had bought from various sales of kitchenware, a few pots from holidays in Spain, cushions, linen and lots of bits and pieces that she needed in the kitchen. She'd bought new when her modern kitchen was put in, but these had been put away under the stairs and would be just right here.
Anna put the cushions on the wooden seats of the kitchen chairs; they were yellow and blue and matched the décor perfectly as she'd known they would. She draped the short net curtain on the pole over the top of the window so that she could still see clearly into the garden. And then she placed a yellow pot on the kitchen windowsill, filling it with a beautiful yellow double begonia she had bought from a garden shop in Cambridge. She set the corner cupboard with figurines she had collected over the years, some of them given to her by her mother and aunt, one or two by Tom. They were all of animals, some in comic pose, some lifelike, some childhood treasures that she had refused to part with. The collection looked wonderful altogether on the shelves of the old pine cupboard. She had never seen them like that and it gave her a feeling of pleasure, because somehow it made things uniquely hers.
She filled her blue and white jug with water and the flowers she had bought, and filled its bowl to the brim with pretty blue pebbles that she had also bought from the Cambridge garden centre, and placed them side by side on the scrubbed pine table.
Satisfied that she had done as much as she could for the moment, she switched on her coffee machine. It was her old one and she believed it still worked as well or better than the fancy new one she'd bought for her expensive kitchen. She set blue and white cups on the tray she had bought with her, poured some cream into a little matching jug and called to Enrique.
He came down, covered in a fine plaster dust, and went to the sink to wash his hands before sitting down to coffee. His eyes sparkled with approval as he took in the changes she had made during his short absence.
'Now it becomes a home, yes?'
'Yes, thanks to you,' Anna said. 'It is so warm and…pretty. Oh, that isn't the right word, but you know what I mean.'
'Yes,' he replied softly. 'It is like you, Anna. Warm and earthy and lovely.'
'Oh…' Anna was lost for words, because his compliment made her want to cry. It was a long time since anyone had said anything like that to her and she blinked hard. 'Thank you. I think that is the nicest compliment anyone has ever paid me.'
'I am not good with words,' Enrique said. 'In Spanish perhaps I could tell you what I think but in English…' He shook his head. 'This coffee is very good, better than the coffee from a jar I think.'
'Much better,' she said and laughed. 'But we were camping out last week. Now I shall be able to cook and do things properly.'
Enrique nodded, a smile in his dark eyes. He drank his coffee and went back to work, leaving Anna to wash the cups and then take her suitcases upstairs. She hung some clothes in the wardrobe, filled the chest with linens, the top drawer with underclothes. She had found some old linen place mats that her aunt had given her, which she had never used because they didn't fit at home. Here they were perfect and she laid one on top of the pine chest, placing her perfume, make up and hair brush on top.
She needed a mirror in here, she decided, remembering that she had seen a tilting mirror at the barn that would do very well. She would buy it when she next went shopping, and she might buy some pictures for the walls, but not cheap ones. She had seen some actual paintings by young artists in a shop in Downton, and she would go there to buy some local scenes when she was ready. She would ask Enrique to put some picture hooks up when he had time.
All her bits and pieces unpacked, Anna went downstairs. She took a quiche from the cool-bag she had brought with her and put into the oven to warm. Then she sliced tomatoes, arranging them on a plate with chicory and thinly sliced red pepper. She also cut some slices of crusty bread and arranged them on an oval dish with a little pot of butter; she poured glasses of Coke for Milo and Enrique and made a pot of tea for herself. She called Milo in from the garden and was taking the quiche from the oven when Enrique came down.
His gaze strayed to the table. Milo was drinking his Coke and he had a piece of chicory in his fingers, which he was eating with enjoyment.
'You did not need to do all this,' Enrique said. 'But it is nice, thank you.'
'It is nothing,' Anna said. 'I have to eat anyway, and you have been working all day. It must be hard to go back and prepare a meal.'
'It is natural for a man to work,' he said as he went to wash his hands. 'Do not go into that back bedroom this evening, Anna. It is a mess but tomorrow I will clear it.'
'I'm going to do some wallpapering this evening,' she said and smiled at him. Once the hall is finished I can start to sort out the living room.'
'What will you do there?'
Anna told him as they ate their meal. Milo drank his Coke and she offered him some orange juice, which he accepted. She noticed that he had eaten more of the salad this time, because it was the kind of thing his father bought, but he tucked into the chocolate biscuits she had put on the table afterwards with evident enjoyment. It was easy and comfortable between them all, almost as if they had known each other for most of their lives.
Anna waved them off after they had finished eating and drinking. She piled the dishes into a plastic bowl in the sink, leaving them to soak in the hot water as she went into the hall. She had left all the things she needed ready to start, and she managed to do the long side of the hall and round the front door before she was ready for bed. Washing up as she waited for the kettle to boil, Anna looked out of her kitchen window. It was getting dark outside, but she could see lights across the river.
She felt settled and comfortable, not in the least nervous of being here alone, and she was smiling as she took a cup of hot chocolate up with her. A quick bath and she was ready for bed.
Anna left her mobile phone on the table in the kitchen when she went shopping the next morning. She had meant to slip it into her jacket pocket but forgot, feeling a little annoyed with herself when she realized what she'd done, but it wasn't worth going back for it. Any messages would still be there when she returned.
She purchased the mirror she wanted from the barn, and then drove to a small supermarket that she had visited before, buying some staples that she needed, and a block of ice-cream, which she put in her cool-bag with other frozen items. It was as she was coming from the supermarket that she almost bumped into someone. He caught her arm, grinning at her.
'Lost in dreams I see!'
'Harry…' Anna smiled as she realized who it was. 'I am sorry. I was just thinking about something. I hope I didn't tread on your foot?'
'No, I'm too quick for that,' he said. 'I was thinking about you this morning, Anna. Would you have lunch with me one day?' She hesitated, and he pressed her. 'What about tomorrow?'
'Won't your wife be expecting you home?'
'I told you, I'm alone these days.'
'Oh…well, I suppose…' she wasn't sure why she was agreeing. Whatever they had once had was long over and it might not be wise to start something new, but on the other hand there was no reason why she shouldn't have lunch with an old friend. 'Yes, all right then,' she said. 'Where shall we meet?'
'I want you to see my hotel,' Harry said. 'The Wayfarer Inn. You turn left just up the road from here.'
'Yes, I know it,' Anna said. 'I buy things from a barn just past the hotel. I've been that way several times recently.'
'Good. I shall expect you at twelve thirty.' He grinned at her. 'Don't be late.'
'No, I shan't,' Anna said. She got into her car, wondering why she had agreed. Harry wasn't the young man she had fallen in love with as a girl, and she didn't truly want to get involved with him. And yet it might be as well to give herself something else to think about. She felt a little warm inside as she realized that of late she had been thinking about someone else more than perhaps she ought. It couldn't do any harm to go out to lunch with an old friend, could it?
When she got back to the cottage, she found a note from Enrique on the kitchen table. He told her that he had had to leave, but would be back the next morning, and added that her phone had rung three times. Anna checked and discovered that two messages were from Tom, the other was from Robbie. He said he was fine and would contact her again soon. Tom sounded a bit cross and asked when she was going to ring him. Anna thought about it and then decided she wouldn't ring him while he was at the office. Perhaps later if she felt like it.
She made a pot of tea and ate an apple and a plain biscuit. It seemed odd not to have Enrique working in the house and she missed him, but wouldn't let herself think about it. Instead, she got on with her wallpapering, finishing the hall by teatime. This time she made herself a ham sandwich, and then went upstairs to peep into the back bedroom before having a bath. Enrique had stripped the damp plaster off the back wall but as yet he hadn't put up the new plasterboard.
She wondered where he had gone, but tried not to dwell on it. She was sure he would come the next morning, and felt confident that he would finish the work.
She had a quick bath, changed into clean jeans and an easy shirt and then went downstairs to the sitting room. She had put most of the things back in the hall now, because she wasn't going to paint the doors and the skirting board had been given one coat of white paint. It looked fine and she could do it again when she felt like it, but she wanted to get all the rooms habitable first.
She sat down on the comfortable old settee that Aunt Mary had bought when the cottage came to her. All it really needed was new loose covers, Anna thought, though she might buy a new one in soft leather if she could afford it when she had finished everything else.
She took her phone from her pocket and dialled Tom's number. He would probably be on the train now. It rang several times before Tom answered, and he sounded a bit out of breath.
'Tom. You rang while I was out this morning. Robbie rang too. Unfortunately, I had left the phone on the kitchen table.'
'Why on earth don't you keep it with you?' he asked a little irritably. 'Susie rang home last night. She wanted to talk to you. I gave her your mobile number because she hadn't got it with her. Did she ring you?'
'No. I checked my messages earlier. It was just you and Robbie. Did she say why she wanted to talk to me?'
'No, but she sounded a bit…'
'No – more concerned. Anyway, she said they were having a lovely time and she will see us on Monday next week.'
'If they aren't cutting the holiday short it can't be that important,' Anna said. Was that the only reason you rang?'
'I wondered when you were coming home.'
'Oh, probably Friday. Why?'
'I have a business trip this weekend. I thought you might come back before then.'
'It is a long way to drive for nothing, Tom. Why can't you talk now?'
'Because…it isn't easy,' he said. 'I want to talk to you about things, Anna. I want to make some changes, but I don't want to just say it over the phone. I need to hear – and see - what you think.'
'What kind of changes?' Anna felt cold all over. Was it finally coming?
'Oh, work and that kind of stuff. I'm finding it harder to keep up with things, but I haven't made up my mind yet.' Tom was silent for a moment. 'Are you alone, Anna?'
'Yes, of course. Enrique had something else on this afternoon. Why do you ask?'
'You sound odd…' he sighed. 'Or maybe it's just me.'
'I am the same as always,' Anna said but wasn't sure she was telling the truth. She had changed recently, only in small ways, but she knew she was feeling different, more alive somehow. 'Why can't you tell me, Tom?'
'I have to go now,' he said. 'I'll call you again. Don't forget I shan't be here this weekend.'
'You shouldn't work so hard. Why don't you tell them you want some time for yourself?'
'I might have to,' he said, his voice oddly muffled. 'See you…'
'Yes. Tom…' But he had switched off. When she tried ringing him again just before she went to bed there was no answer – the call service said that the number wasn't available. She declined to leave a message, but she felt uneasy as she went to bed and eventually drifted into sleep.
The next morning, Anna decided that she would put all the sitting room furniture into a heap in the middle of the room and start stripping off the paper. Enrique arrived as she was struggling with the sofa, and immediately pitched into help.
'I am sorry I had to leave yesterday, but a friend of mine needed some help.'
'It didn't matter,' Anna said. 'I finished the hall yesterday. What did you think?'
'Are you working too hard?' he asked, looking at her, his dark gaze sending shivers down her spine. 'It is very nice. I like the pale colours you are choosing for your house; they add light and that pale blue makes the hall seem brighter – but you have worked too hard.'
'Well, today, I am only going to work for an hour or so. I have an appointment to have lunch with an old friend. Harry wants me to see his hotel. It's ages since we knew each other, but we have met a couple of times since I came down here.'
Enrique nodded. She thought he was regarding her oddly but he didn't say anything, except to let her know he was going to finish the back bedroom that day.
'After that it will be the stairs and landing boards, then the bathroom and to change all the doors – that is all I think?'
'Unless you could decorate the upstairs hall for me? I don't think I can manage that ceiling.'
'No, you should not try. It is enough what you do here.'
Anna thanked him, getting on with some steaming of the sitting room walls as he went back to work. She worked until eleven and then went upstairs to wash and change into clean clothes, choosing a pair of cream slacks and a chocolate coloured silk shirt. She noticed that the waist of the slacks was looser than it had been a couple of weeks earlier, and as she glanced in her mirror she thought they were not as snug on the hips as they had been. She must have lost some weight, she thought, feeling pleased. She hadn't had time to notice recently, and her old jeans were shapeless anyway, but these slacks had been a tight fit.
She looked in at Enrique as he was working. 'I should be back by three. If you want anything for Milo just help yourself,' she said, but he just nodded and carried on with his work.
Anna was thoughtful as she drove to the hotel for her appointment. It was ages since she had been out to lunch with a man, especially one who was not her husband. For a moment she wondered what Tom might think, but then realized that at the moment she cared more for Enrique's approval – and she had an idea that he did not approve of her meeting Harry for lunch.
But why should he approve or disapprove? They had become friendly while he worked for her, but that was all – all it ever could or should be, Anna told herself. He was probably nine years younger and he wouldn't be interested in any other kind of relationship – and nor was she. Her relationship with Tom had been fraught for a while, but he was still her husband. She still cared for him, possibly more than she wanted to admit.
Anna drew up outside the Wayfarer Inn. It looked very smart from the outside, its sign freshly painted as it swung in the breeze. She guessed that it must be getting on for two hundred years old, an attractive property that looked even nicer at the moment because of the baskets of hanging flowers. The colours were gorgeous and she thought that she would like to have some tubs of flowers at the cottage, but that wouldn't be worthwhile unless she was spending more time down here, because they needed frequent watering.
She would think about that another time, Anna decided as she went into the hotel. Harry had told her to meet him in the bar and as she went in she saw that he was already there, having a drink with another man. However, as he saw her he left his friend and came to greet her with a smile.
'You look lovely,' he said and leaned forward to kiss her cheek. 'I'm glad you came. I wasn't sure you would.'
'I told you I would,' Anna said. 'I usually mean what I say. We used to be friends once, Harry. There is no reason we shouldn't be again.'
'I think we used to be much more,' he said. 'Would you like a drink before we go into lunch?'
'I'm driving. Just a glass of wine with lunch please.'
'Very sensible,' Harry approved, though she noticed that he signalled to the barman to bring him another whisky. 'I think our table is ready.'
The head waiter came to escort them to the table. He was very polite, correct as he held Anna's chair for her, but he didn't smile at her or his employer. She wondered about that for a moment, but decided that Harry didn't encourage familiarity with his staff.
'Now, what will you have?' Harry asked as they were shown the menus. 'I can recommend the chef's specials, because they are always good, but choose what you like, Anna.'
'I should like the Dover sole with a side salad and boiled potatoes please.'
'Nothing to start?'
'No, the fish will be enough for me, thank you – but please order for yourself if you wish.'
'It will probably be best if I don't,' Harry said and patted his midriff, which was still fairly flat, though he had signs of overindulgence in his face, his cheeks a little puffy and tiny red veins about his nose. 'I try to keep myself in trim, but it isn't easy.'
'I can put on weight if I so much as look at a cream cake,' Anna said and laughed. 'I'm not exactly on a strict diet but I try to be sensible.'
'I shouldn't have thought you needed to diet,' Harry said, his eyes moving over her with appreciation. 'I don't like skinny women. You are perfect in my opinion.'
Anna blushed, because the look that accompanied the compliment was suggestive. She wondered uneasily if she had made a big mistake by agreeing to have lunch with him. On the face of it, it was harmless enough but he might get the wrong idea, which could prove embarrassing.
'Tom says that sometimes,' she told him. 'But I think he is just being diplomatic – the way husbands are.'
'You are still married then?' Harry sipped his whisky, looking at her reflectively. 'I thought you might be divorced or separated…might have been why you had decided to renovate the cottage?'
'Oh, no,' Anna said. 'I'm not sure whether we shall keep it for holidays or sell, but it was something I wanted to do.'
'Your husband isn't with you?'
'Tom is too busy for things like that,' Anna said. 'He is a director of a medical supply company; it sometimes involves a lot of travelling.'
'Perks of the job, eh?' Harry winked at her.
'I don't know. Sometimes it just seems like a lot of hard work to me.'
'Have you any children?'
'Robbie is taking his gap year from medical school,' Anna said. 'And Susie has just got married. She is on her honeymoon at the moment.'
'Ah, the chicks have left the nest,' Harry said. 'Makes you feel a bit restless does it? Muriel was the same…'
'Your wife? Are you divorced?'
'Separated. She went off to Spain to the villa and told me she wasn't coming back.' He shrugged and beckoned to the waiter, lifting his glass to indicate that he wanted another drink. 'Suits me fine. Our children are both married. One lives in London, the other in New York. We hardly ever see them these days.'
'Robbie phones quite often,' Anna said, 'and Susie will be living in Cambridge I expect.'
'That's where your mother took you off to, isn't it? You haven't moved far then?'
'No, not far,' Anna said. 'You have stayed in Wiltshire – not very adventurous, are we?'
'Oh, I wouldn't say that,' Harry said. 'I get about quite a bit. Not that I like going abroad much. Prefer England myself.'
Again Anna felt that there was something suggestive about the way he looked at her. She wished that she had thought twice about coming, but she couldn't just get up and walk out now. She had hoped that talking about Tom would make him realise that this was just lunch, but it didn't seem to have had quite the effect she had hoped for.
She sighed inwardly as she sipped her wine, wondering how long she need wait before she left. However, she could do no less than be friendly while they were together, though she would think carefully before accepting another invitation from him.
The waiter brought her a glass of white wine. Harry had refused wine and ordered yet another whisky. Anna watched him drink it uneasily. She wasn't used to men who drank this amount and she didn't like it much.
She continued to talk about her family, and about her business, encouraging him to tell her about his family. He didn't seem very interested in his children, but when she got him on to the subject of his business, he came into his own. He told her about how he had started in the building trade working for someone else, going on to build extensions for people in his own time and then graduating to owning his own building firm, which he told her was currently the largest in the district. The hotel was a recent venture and he wanted to know her opinion of it.
Anna was able to tell him truthfully that she thought it was an attractive setting and that the food was good. He then asked her why she hadn't come to him to do the work on her cottage.
'I don't think I could have afforded a regular builder,' she said. 'I discovered someone who was willing to work at reasonable prices.'
'Let's hope he isn't one of the cowboys who give our trade a bad name.' He pulled a face as if he thought she had fallen into the hands of a rogue trader.
'Oh, I can assure you that he isn't,' Anna said. She looked up as the waiter took her plate. 'No, nothing more for me, thank you.'
'Don't you want a pudding or coffee?' Harry asked.
'No, thank, you,' Anna said and glanced at her watch. 'The time has flown. Thank you for a delightful lunch, Harry, but I must go. Will you allow me to pay for my share?'
'I should think I damned well shan't,' he said with a look of annoyance. 'I thought you might hang around for a while.'
'Sorry. I have an appointment,' Anna lied. 'But thank you again, Harry. I've enjoyed our talk.'
'I'll probably come over and have a look at what this odd job man of yours has done,' Harry said. 'Make sure it is all right and proper.'
'I'm sure there's no need,' she said, 'but of course you are welcome to come for coffee one morning if you wish.' She groaned inwardly as she said the words, wishing them unsaid immediately. Politeness had made her weak, because she owed him something for the lunch, and she had a feeling she might regret it.
'Going to be there for a few days, are you?'
'Yes – until Friday,' Anna said, though she was planning to stay the whole weekend. 'Excuse me, I must fly.'
She picked up her bag and jacket, leaving him before he could protest again. She noticed that he signalled to the waiter and suspected that he meant to order yet another drink. As she walked through the foyer, she saw a small, thin woman with dark hair talking to the receptionist. She glanced at Anna as she walked by and then turned towards the dining room.
Anna smiled wryly as she drove back to the cottage. Over the years she had wondered every now and then what her life might have been like if she had married Harry, but now she was relieved that she hadn't. His drinking would worry her, and she was pretty sure that he was the kind of man who indulged in extra marital affairs: it was probably the reason why his wife had left him. If that bit of it was true, and there had been something in his eyes that made her wonder if he had lied.
He was still attractive despite the signs of overindulgence in his face, and she imagined he had been unfaithful to his wife on more than one occasion. He had dismissed her as irrelevant, and yet Anna had a sneaking feeling that she was still around despite his claims that he was separated.
She laughed at herself as she recalled the dreams she had indulged in before she came down here, thinking that they might meet again and it would all be romantic and as wonderful as when they were young. Well, she come to her senses now, and it served her right for thinking that way. Tom was twice the man Harry ever could be…her smile faded as she thought about their last conversation on the phone.
Tom wanted to talk to her about something and she was very much afraid it was divorce. Anna felt her throat go dry. Despite all their quarrels and they way he had been behaving recently, she wasn't sure how she would feel if he said he needed to be free.
Enrique was making a sandwich for Milo in the kitchen when she got back. She had told him to use what he needed when he fetched his son, and she had been only too happy that he should use her facilities. He had given Milo a glass of orange juice from the fridge as she had suggested, and he had fresh coffee bubbling away as she walked in.
'I thought perhaps you might like one – unless you've had coffee?' he said looking towards the machine.
'No, I didn't and I would love it,' she said and pulled a wry face. 'I met an old friend, but I shouldn't have done. Time moves on and you can't go back.'
'This is true,' Enrique said. He raised his dark eyebrows. 'So you did not enjoy yourself?'
'Not very much,' Anna admitted. 'I think Harry lied to me about being separated from his wife, and I suspect that he thought I might be interested in an affair with him, which I am not.'
'Ah…' Enrique nodded. 'Some men do not understand friendship I think?'
'I was desperately in love with him when I was sixteen,' Anna gurgled with laughter. 'I can't for the life of me think why, except that he is an attractive man. Even now, he is the kind of man that women notice – but I'm not interested.'
'You are in love with your husband I think?'
'Yes, perhaps…sometimes I'm not sure,' Anna said. 'I love him, yes. If he was ill I would be desperately upset, but I'm not sure if we are still in love. Things change as the years go by.'
Enrique nodded, but didn't say anymore. He poured coffee for Anna, leaving her to add milk and sugar as she pleased. He drank his very black with three spoons heaped with sugar.
'The back bedroom wall is finished,' he said after drinking some of his coffee. 'Now the plaster must dry for some days before you decorate – but you have the sitting room to finish.'
'Yes, I want to get that finished first,' Anna said. 'And I think I shall paint the ceiling in there. The bedroom didn't need it, because it had been done recently, but the sitting room hasn't been touched for ages.'
'You have chosen your paper?'
'Not yet. I'm going to get everything else done and then pop into town and pick some out,' Anna said. Milo had finished his sandwich. 'I have some ice-creams in the freezer compartment if you would like one, Milo.'
'Yes, please, Anna.'
Chocolate or an ice lollipop?'
'A lollipop please.'
'Strawberry or lemon flavour?'
Anna gave him the ice-lolly and then poured herself another cup of coffee. Enrique carried his cup to the sink. He ruffled his son's hair, told him to be good, and went out. Anna could hear him whistling to himself and then some banging upstairs. She realized that he was taking the basin out of the bathroom.
'Shall we go into the garden?' Anna asked Milo, deciding to leave the washing up until later. 'I'm going to cut the lawn, and you can play with the ball your father left here for you.'
'I'm going to be a footballer one day,' Milo told her confidently. 'I shall play for Rael Madrid, be famous and earn lots of money. And then I shall buy Papa a Ferrari car – a red one.'
'Oh good,' Anna said, smiling to herself because he was so sure of his future. 'And who is your favourite footballer?'
'David Beckham,' he replied promptly. 'I want to play like he does.'
'Ah yes,' Anna said, understanding the appeal. She liked David Beckham herself. 'What else do you like to do?'
'I like to swim,' he said. 'We go to the swimming pool on Sundays. Do you like to swim, Anna?'
'Yes, sometimes. If it is warm and the sun is shining like today.'
'The pool we use is indoors,' Milo told her. 'You should come too. It is always warm even if it is raining.'
'That would be very nice. Perhaps I shall one day.'
'Isabella comes sometimes,' Milo told her. 'She likes to watch but she doesn't come into the pool. She is afraid of the water.'
'She looks after me sometimes when Papa is working.'
'Ah yes, I see. She is your father's friend.'
'Isabella comes from Spain too. She is very pretty.' Milo looked at her. 'Not as pretty as you.'
Anna laughed, kicking his ball down the garden so that he went chasing after it. She felt warmed by the child's confidence and his compliment, though she was quite sure that the unknown Isabella was probably much prettier and younger than she was.
She played football on the lawn with Milo for a while, and then left him to look for frogs in amongst the rocks at the end of the garden. They had once seen a frog there and he looked every day in the hope of seeing it again, though so far he hadn't been successful.
Anna cut the lawn. It was nearly four o'clock by the time she had finished. She asked Milo if he would like to feed the ducks, and they collected some bread. She called up to Enrique that they were going for a little walk, and then left the house.
It was a beautiful afternoon. The sun was shining on the water, making it sparkle instead of looking a muddy brown as it often did. They fed the ducks but looked for the swans in vain, and then, as they were about to go home, a large Rottweiler dog came bounding up to them. Milo ran to it at once, but it barked at him, frightening him so that he screamed. His cry seemed to inflame the dog, which growled menacingly. Anna snatched him away, sheltering him as the dog growled and jumped at her. It bit her on her arm, but then its owner came rushing up and dragged it away, fastening the choke collar so that it was under control.
'I am so sorry,' she said, looking flustered. 'Oh, did Rufus bite you? It was my fault for letting him off…'
'He tried to attack the child,' Anna said feeling furious. The dog's teeth had hardly grazed her skin, and hadn't drawn blood, but she was angry because of what might have happened if she hadn't pulled Milo back out of the way. 'If you are going to let him off the lead you should put a muzzle on him. If he had bitten Milo it could have been his face.'
'I am sorry,' the woman apologised again looking upset. She was a small thin woman with dark hair and a tired-looking face. 'Harry says I should have him put down. His dog is as friendly as can be, of course, but Rufus came from a rescue home and he isn't trustworthy with children.'
Looking at her properly now, Anna recognized the woman who had been at the Wayfarer Inn earlier that day, and suddenly she knew. It was the reason the receptionist had looked at her oddly as she left.
'You're Mrs Crabbe, aren't you?'
'Yes, I am. You're not going to tell the police about this? Please don't. They would make me have Rufus put down, and that would break my heart. I don't have much in life, but at least he loves me.' There was a sob in her voice, which made Anna feel guilty because she had lunched with Harry earlier. What a liar he was! She was both angry and upset that she had allowed him to persuade her to have lunch.
'No, I shan't go to the police, but for your own sake, get a muzzle for that dog. He could cause a nasty accident if you're not careful.'
Anna's arm was stinging a little. She pushed Milo in front of her, shielding him from the dog, which started growling and straining at the leash. Obviously it hated children!
Anna took Milo into the garden and bolted the gate securely. She didn't want stray dogs invading the garden, especially one like the fierce brute they had just encountered.
'We shall have a drink now,' she told Milo. 'Would you like a Coke?'
'Yes please.' He skipped happily ahead of her to the house, and Anna was relieved that he didn't seemed to be bothered by the incident, which was good because it might have made him afraid of dogs in general. Fortunately, she had been alert and so avoided a catastrophe.
As she entered the kitchen, she heard Milo telling his father what had happened, and he looked at her anxiously as she went to the sink, turning on the cold tap to wash her arm.
'The dog bit you?'
'Yes. Well, it was just a nip really. Fortunately its teeth haven't broken the skin.'
'Milo says he was going to bite him, but you pushed him behind you.'
'Yes, of course. The dog could have done severe damage to his face. I just hope it hasn't frightened him too much.'
'Milo loves dogs,' Enrique said. 'I tell him not to approach strange dogs but he cannot resist them. I should buy him his own, but now is not the time.'
'Most children love dogs, but it can be risky if they pat animals they don't know. People should muzzle their pets if they know they are dangerous, but it is amazing how many don't think it necessary.'
'You will go to the police?'
'No, I don't think so. Milo wasn't hurt, just scared for a moment.'
'Let me look.' Enrique took the towel and dried her arm, looking at the graze. The soft flesh had bruised a little but he could see that the skin was not broken. 'You were lucky, but you should use some antiseptic and bind it up for a while.'
'There's a first aid kit in the drawer of the corner cabinet. I bought it just in case.'
Enrique fetched it. He took out the antiseptic cream, squeezed some onto to a lint pad, and applied it to the wound, then undid a sterile bandage and bound her arm so that the pad held in place. The touch of his hands was so gentle that Anna's stomach tied itself in knots. She swallowed hard, knowing that she wanted him to keep touching her, but moving away as soon as he had finished because it was stupid.
'Anna should come swimming with us on Sunday,' Milo said, looking at his father. 'Can she come, Papa?'
'Yes, if she would like, but I do not know if she will be here?'
'Yes, I shall. I had planned to stay this weekend,' Anna said. 'Tom is away for three days and I might as well get on with some work as drive home for nothing.'
'Then we must take you to the pool,' Enrique said, 'and then we go to Macdonald's. It is Milo's treat for Sunday.'
'That sounds wonderful,' Anna said instantly. 'Thank you. Will you stay for tea?'
'Thank you, no,' Enrique said. 'Do not use the basin upstairs for a few hours – tomorrow would be best. I leave the toilet until you are not here so that it rests for a day or so. Tomorrow I start decorating upstairs. I shall do all the ceilings, except for the one you said did not need it, and tile the bathroom above the sink.'
'You will soon be finished,' Anna said, and felt a sinking sensation inside as she realized that once the cottage was done she wouldn't see him very often, if at all.
'I have the doors to hang and varnish, and the stairs,' Enrique reminded her. 'One more week and it will all be done I think.' He looked at Milo. 'Finish your Coke. We must go now.'
'Isabella is coming,' Milo told Anna. 'Tonight she looks after me and Papa goes out.'
'I see.' Anna glanced at Enrique but he was collecting his things and didn't look at her. 'Have a good time then, both of you.'
She watched them get into the van, standing at the window until they had gone. It was stupid to feel a little pang of loss, but Enrique's friendship had come to mean a lot to her in a short time.
Anna worked on the sitting room until nearly ten o'clock that night, and then ran herself a bath. She remembered just in time not to use the basin, and smiled to herself as she went to bed. Her mobile phone rang just as she had pulled back the covers, and she saw that it was Tom calling her. She sat on the edge of the bed to answer it
'Tom,' she said. 'Are you all right?'
'Feeling a bit neglected,' he said and sounded rueful. 'I've only just got home and the house seems empty. I'm not used to looking after myself. I don't like it much. When are you coming home?'
'Towards the end of next week I should think.'
'There isn't much point, is there? You will be away all weekend. I would prefer to be here.'
'I see.' Tom's voice sounded distant. 'Susie rang me again. Apparently she couldn't get you on your mobile.'
'I haven't seen any messages,' Anna said. 'Did she leave a number that I could call?'
'No. Just said she would ring you when she gets home.'
'What are you doing?'
'I've just had a bath and now I'm going to bed.'
'Are you alone?'
'Yes, of course. What is that supposed to mean, Tom?'
'I just wondered.'
'I could ask you the same thing when you get back from your business trips. If they are business trips…
'Oh hell!' he said. 'This isn't getting us anywhere. I'll see you when you get back.'
'Tom…' Anna looked at her phone in frustration as he cut off. She wondered whether she should ring him back, and then decided against it. What she needed to do was check her answering service in case it needed resetting, but that could wait until the morning.
Enrique started decorating the upstairs hall the next morning. He spent most of the day doing ceilings and skirting boards, because, as he said, he wanted to hang the new doors last so that they didn't get paint on them. Anna was glad that he had done all the things she hadn't, proper preparation and filling included. She enjoyed papering but not all the fiddly bits that Enrique was so good at.
She had a sandwich and an apple when he went to fetch Milo and spent the afternoon helping the child to build a model aeroplane his father had bought him. They had muffins for tea, which Anna warmed in the toaster, and then she waved them off at the end of the day. It was only after the van had disappeared from sight that she realized Enrique had left his mobile phone on the kitchen table.
He would find that awkward, Anna thought. If she'd known his address she would have taken it to him, but they had never discussed where he lived. It had never come up for some reason, because she had no need to know. He would just have to do without it until the morning or return to fetch it later.
Anna decided that she would move some of the furniture around in her sitting room. The long wall was now finished, the paper she had bought in place and the skirting painted white, and the end opposite the window was also done. She could move some of the smaller items, though she would have to ask for help in shifting the large, old-fashioned sideboard. It wasn't something she really wanted to keep and she wondered if she could sell it and buy something different. Enrique's friend might come and have a look at it for her. She had just set a rather nice oak side table with pad feet into place, and was trying to decide whether it was eighteenth century or merely a reproduction when she heard the front doorbell ring.
Had Enrique forgotten his key as well as his phone? She went to the door expecting it to be him, a smile on her face. The smile faded as she opened it and discovered it was Harry.
'Oh,' she said. 'I wasn't expecting anyone this evening. I'm rather busy.'
'What are you doing?' Harry asked. 'May I come in?'
Anna hesitated, and then, reluctantly stepped back to allow him to enter. 'Come through and see what you think,' she invited. 'I warn you, the sitting room is in a mess, because I am in the middle of decorating.' She took him into the sitting room, gesturing towards the jumbled up furniture. 'I can't ask you to sit down, as you can see.'
'Is this your odd job man's work?' Harry was looking up at the ceiling, and Anna saw that she had missed a tiny bit in the corner.
'No, I'm doing most of the decorating myself, although Enrique is making a much better job upstairs. I don't bother with all the preparation the way he does.'
'You should,' Harry said. 'It saves time in the long run.'
'Come into the kitchen,' Anna said. 'At least we can sit in comfort there. I'll make some coffee if you like.' She hesitated and then, 'I can't offer you anything stronger I'm afraid, because I don't have anything in the house at the moment.'
'Coffee will be fine,' Harry said. 'I drink far too much anyway.'
'It won't do you any good, Harry.'
'I know,' he said heavily, 'but once I start I just can't seem to stop. My doctor has told me to give up before it's too late. I shall have to listen to him – but it helps with the boredom.'
'I shouldn't have thought you had any reason to be bored,' Anna said as she set the coffee machine going. 'You must be busy most of the time, surely?'
'Business…' Harry sighed. 'A man needs more than that in his life, Anna. Since Muriel left me…I've been lonely.'
'I'm sorry about that,' Anna replied, wondering how he could sit there and lie to her so easily. 'Perhaps you should try making it up with her – fly out to Spain to see her?'
'It wouldn't do any good,' Harry said. 'I think it would be best to get a divorce. We should be both be free then…' He gave her a soulful look. 'Maybe I could find someone…'
'Yes, I am sure you could.' Anna poured coffee. 'Do you take milk and sugar?'
'Yes, please. A spot of one and three spoons of the other.'
Anna pushed the milk jug and sugar basin towards him. 'Help yourself, Harry.'
He obeyed, his eyes travelling round the kitchen as he stirred his coffee. 'What are you going to do with this then? Take all this old junk out and invest in a nice modern kitchen?'
Anna carefully controlled her tongue, because she sensed that he was being deliberately provoking. 'This is the way I want it, Harry. I chose everything here, apart from the dresser, which has been stripped and varnished, as you can surely see.'
'Well, yes, I suppose,' he said. 'I just don't see you in a place like this, Anna. You deserve the best money can buy. If you had asked me I would have given you a kitchen worthy of you.'
'I like this the way it is,' Anna said. 'It is me, Harry – perhaps you don't know me.'
'Haven't had a lot of chance to know you, have I?' Harry looked at her, his gaze suddenly intense. 'You know I loved you. There has never been anyone else for me – not like you, Anna. You are the reason my marriage failed, and why no other woman ever means anything.'
'That's not quite true,' Anna said, feeling a little uneasy as she saw the gleam in his eyes and guessed where all this was leading. 'You could have come down to Cambridge if you'd wanted to be with me. You were older and you were just about to leave school. You could have found a job near where I lived.'
'Your mother wouldn't have thought a builder's labourer was worthy of you. She was always a bit of a snob.'
'Harry! That's not fair.'
'Maybe I shouldn't say it, but it was true. It was the reason your father left her.'
'How do you know?' she demanded.
'He told me he was fed up with being told to wipe his feet every time he came in the house.'
Anna sighed. 'Yes, perhaps that was a part of it. Mum was house-proud I suppose, but there were other reasons. He met a younger, prettier woman and went off with her. She wrote and told us when he died a few years ago. Mum refused to go to the funeral but Tom and I went.'
He finished his coffee and looked at her speculatively. 'You're still with your husband, but you're not happy, are you?'
'Why do you say that?'
'It stands to reason. You wouldn't be down here alone unless something was wrong.'
'That isn't true – and it isn't any of your business.'
'Unless I make it my business – you, I'm talking about.' There was a gleam in Harry's eyes then that made her uncomfortable. 'I'm a rich man, Anna, and I've no one to spend my money on these days. I don't see why we can't get together, have a good time. I can take you places, give you things – a better car than you drive and a better place to live for starters.'
'Are you trying to buy me, Harry?' Anna was astonished. 'Because if you are, I should tell you that I am not for sale.'
'It isn't a question of buying you,' he said and grinned at her as though he thought it was funny. 'The thing is I say what I mean. I can make your life better if you do the same for me…give each other a bit of company and comfort.'
Anna didn't know whether to laugh or slap his face. She was torn between anger and amusement. Even Jack's uncle had made a better job of propositioning her than this!
'It isn't that I'm not flattered, Harry,' she said, laughter winning out over the anger, because he really didn't know that he was being insulting. He thought he was offering a fair bargain, and so it might be for some – but not for her. 'The answer is no. I'm sorry but I'm not interested in an affair.'
'If we got on well, I could ask Muriel for a divorce,' Harry said, 'but we're both grown up, Anna. It isn't necessary these days. Everyone lives together rather than bothering with marriage.'
'The answer would still be no if we were both free,' Anna told him firmly as the laughter died and she felt angry. 'I still respect my marriage vows even if you don't, Harry – and anyway, I'm not interested in you that way.' She knew she had made a mistake the moment the words were spoken.
He stared at her, his face going white and then red, as if she had offered him a deadly insult. 'You always were a stuck up little bitch,' he said and got to his feet. 'You need a good seeing to, my girl, and I'm the man to do it.'
Anna felt a jolt of fear as she saw the way his face had turned nasty. She moved away from him, because she had a good idea of what was in his mind.
'Don't be stupid, Harry,' she said. 'You can't really mean to…' She gave a scream as he leapt at her, catching hold of her arm where the dog had bitten her earlier and making her wince with pain, because it was still sore. 'Let me go or I shall scream.'
'A lot of good it will do you here,' he sneered. 'Don't get many people down here, especially at night.'
He jammed her against the table, kissing and biting at her neck. She tried to wrench away from him but he was very strong. She could smell the whisky on his breath and knew he must have been drinking earlier. All doubts about his character fled: he was a brute given to drinking too much, and he thought he had a God given right to do as he pleased.
'I shall go to the police, Harry,' she threatened as he pushed his knee between her legs, inching her top up with one hand while still keeping hold of her with the other. 'This is sexual assault…'
'Be quiet, you bitch,' Harry said and grunted as he placed his wet mouth over hers, biting at her lips. She struggled frantically, turning her head away and screaming as she felt him making movements against her, feeling the hard bulge of his erection against her jeans, knowing that he meant to have her if he could. 'Go to the police for all the good it will do you. You were seen lunching with me and you invited me here for coffee. A woman alone in a cottage like this, asking for trouble…' he sneered, making her feel sick inside, because she knew some people would think as he did.
'That doesn't give you the right to do this,' Anna said as he bent his head and began licking at her breasts, having managed to push the lace of her bra to one side. 'Stop it! Leave me alone. Stop it…' She screamed again but more out of frustration than in the hope of help. He was right, no one was likely to hear her. 'Let me go you, brute.' She managed to push him back and tried to struggle free, but he put a hand to her throat, making it impossible for her to move. 'Please don't…'
Even as she knew she was wasting her breath, and that she was now helpless, she saw a shadow outside the kitchen door over his shoulder and she screamed again. Renewing her efforts to drive him back as he struggled with the zip of her jeans, she hit out at him, her nails scoring his face. She felt a flood of relief as the door burst open and Enrique came purposefully towards them. He had the advantage of surprise and grabbed Harry by his jacket collar, jerking him from Anna.
'What the hell!' Harry stared at him, eyes bulging as he saw the fury in Enrique's face seconds before an iron fist landed on his nose, sending him staggering back and causing the blood to spurt. He put a hand up to his face, clearly stunned both by the suddenness of the interruption and the strength of his assailant. 'You damned fool. What did you do that for?'
'You were trying to rape Anna. I stopped you.'
Harry had recovered his balance now. He held a handkerchief to his nose, trying to stop the flow. His voice was muffled, resentful as he said, 'You've probably broken my nose.'
'Good.' Enrique looked at Anna. 'Are you all right? Do you want to send for the police?'
'Too right I do,' Harry said removing his handkerchief, which was now soaked in blood. 'I'll see you in court, you daft bugger! She was perfectly willing.'
'No, I wasn't, Harry,' Anna said. 'You assaulted me and I shall stand up in court and say so if you try to sue him -–and despite what you said about people thinking I asked for it, I think the court will be on my side.'
'Damn the pair of you!' Harry said. 'You're both mad. I see what it is - you're having it off with him, Anna. Like them young do you?' He sneered at her, making her feel worse than she already did.
'Get out of here,' Enrique said and moved towards him menacingly. Harry went. As strong as he was, he knew when he was beaten. Enrique was younger and stronger, and by the force of that blow, he worked out at the gym. And his nose was hurting like hell!
'I'll see you in court,' he threatened Enrique as he left.
Anna was shaking. She sat down, feeling her legs buckle under her. 'I'm so sorry,' she said. 'He came to the door, wanted to see the cottage. I gave him coffee and then he propositioned me. When I refused he became angry and…' She bent her head for a moment, feeling the humiliation of her ordeal. 'He seemed to think he was entitled because we had once been involved, but we were only kids then…'
'It wasn't your fault,' Enrique said, his voice soft and gentle. 'Don't blame yourself, Anna. You didn't encourage him. His kind always imagines that they can do what they like.'
'But if he takes you to court…' She looked at him, her face an open book as her concern showed.
'He won't,' Enrique said. 'Believe me. He has more to lose than I have. He knows you would tell the court what he did and he can't afford the scandal: it would affect his business – and his wife would probably divorce him. He wouldn't want to pay her half of everything he owns. He prefers to keep her around so that he can have as many affairs as he pleases.'
'It was her dog that bit me,' Anna said looking thoughtful. 'He told me she was living in Spain and that they were separated, but it was a lie. I saw her at the hotel the day I met him for lunch, and something in the receptionist's eyes as she glanced at me, made me wonder if she might be his wife, because I suspected him of lying. And then when her dog attacked us, I guessed who she was because she mentioned that Harry's dog was friendly. It gave me the clue because it is a lovely dog. I asked her if she was Mrs Crabbe and she said yes but begged me not to go to the police.'
'If he tries it on again, tell him that you'll go to the police about the dog. I've never met her myself, but I know of her through a friend of mine, and I know that she loves that thing. If Harry did something that caused it to be put down she would divorce him.'
Anna laughed, feeling better as his calm tone began to ease the feelings of shame and disgust that had almost overwhelmed her. 'Yes, she would,' she agreed. 'I can easily believe that from meeting her just that once. In her shoes I would too. Harry is such a brute. I think I would prefer the dog too.'
Enrique smiled. 'That is better. Would you like something to drink? A glass of wine?'
'Yes, please,' Anna agreed. She watched as he went to the fridge and took out the wine she had there. She'd lied to Harry about not having any because she hadn't wanted to encourage him to stay, but he had been obviously drinking earlier anyway. 'Thank you. She sipped her wine and gave him a grateful look. 'I'm glad you came back for your phone.'
'As it turns out, it was fortunate that I forgot it,' Enrique said looking at her anxiously. 'Will you be all right if I leave you now? Milo is with a friend but I said I would only be a few minutes.'
'Don't worry about me,' Anna said. She felt wretched but she was determined not to let him see. 'I shall lock my doors in future when I'm alone here. I don't think he will try it again anyway. His nose is going to be painful for a while and, to be fair, he may have thought I would welcome his advances. I had tried to make it clear I didn't but…' she shrugged. 'I'm afraid he might take it out on you some way. He is the kind of man who would make trouble for you if he could.'
'I can take care of myself.' He smiled down at her. 'You don't need to worry for my sake, Anna. I am glad I was here for you, able to protect you.'
'It would have been much worse if you hadn't been,' she said. 'As it is he only managed to damage my pride. I feel foolish and…soiled.'
'You could never be that,' Enrique said. He was standing very close to her and he bent his head, his lips brushing hers in the softest of kisses. 'You are beautiful in every way, Anna. Don't let what happened change you. You have no need of shame.'
Anna felt that the touch of his lips set a myriad of butterfly wings loose inside her, making her achingly aware of a need she had been suppressing for a long time. She smiled and touched his hand, her body wanting to prolong his caress, but her mind warning her that now wasn't the time.
'Thank you,' she said in a voice made husky by emotion. 'I think that is one of the nicest compliments anyone has ever paid me.'
'I must go now,' he said, reaching to touch her cheek with one fingertip. 'Tomorrow is another day. We work we eat – and on Sunday we take Milo swimming.'
'Yes,' Anna said, glad that he had brought her back to normality. 'Yes, everything will be just as it was.'
Enrique turned away. She followed him to the door without speaking, and locked it behind him. She wished that he could stay, and she knew that if he had asked she would have gone to bed with him willingly. In actual fact it had taken all her strength of will not to beg him to stay. Her body was acutely aware of the need he had aroused in her, and she knew that she wanted him – more than she would have imagined possible.
After he had driven away, Anna went upstairs and ran herself a bath. She poured a generous measure of bubble bath into the steaming water, and immersed herself in it gratefully. Harry Crabbe would have succeeded in raping her if Enrique hadn't come, she knew that clearly. It had shocked her because it was the first time that a man had ever treated her so roughly. She had plenty of invitations, both hinted and spoken, but the men had always taken her refusal in good part. It had sickened her when Harry attacked her like that, but Enrique had taken away the sting of humiliation with his gentleness and his smile.
Anna closed her eyes as she lay back in the water, its warmth making her feel relaxed and aware of the tingling between her thighs as she imagined Enrique touching her there. He had such beautiful hands -–powerful and yet gentle. She had wanted him to keep touching her when he had applied the antiseptic to her arm, and his kiss had turned her knees to water. She had wished that he would take her to bed then.
And she was completely mad! Anna laughed softly to herself. It was stupid to dream about a man who was years younger than her. She couldn't imagine a life for them. Enrique had a young son who needed a mother to care for him, and she believed that he was planning to return to Spain one day. Perhaps quite soon. It could never work for them even though she sensed that he was attracted to her, that he found her desirable.
Besides, there was Tom and her family. Despite all the problems she had been experiencing recently, she couldn't walk off and leave them. Even if Tom wanted a divorce, she needed a home for Susie and Robbie to come to when they felt like it. She had her commitments and so did Enrique, but that didn't stop her thinking about how good it could be between them. Dreams were free and didn't harm anyone.
Anna greeted Enrique the next morning as if nothing untoward had happened, as if that kiss hadn't made her want to melt in his arms. They had coffee together and then spent the morning working in different parts of the house.
Anna tried not to think about what would happen when the house was finished. It was beginning to look like a home. She had sorted out the things she wanted to keep, and those she didn't, making plans to go shopping in Salisbury on Saturday morning. And she had phoned the pine barn to ask if the owner would take her sideboard away, because it was much too large.
When Enrique fetched Milo at lunchtime, Anna finished what she was doing and took him into the garden to play ball. He asked to feed the ducks and after some hesitation she agreed. This time they saw only a couple of dogs, both of which were friendly and kept securely on the leash by responsible owners.
Enrique took Milo home after they all ate sausages, chips and beans for tea, followed by ice cream. Milo hugged her before he left and said that he would see her on Sunday. After they had gone, she experienced a feeling of loss, but tried to ignore it. She would be a fool to let herself get too attached to either the child or his father.
Having cleared up, she rang Tom at home, but discovered that the phone was engaged. She was just wondering what to do with the rest of her evening when her front doorbell pealed loudly. She looked out of the sitting room window before opening it, frowning as she saw that it was Harry's wife. Feeling reluctant, she opened the door and for a moment they looked at each other in silence.
'Are you all right?' Muriel Crabbe asked. 'Harry told me what happened. I knew something had, because of his nose. It is broken – and it serves him right. I got it out of him in the end, I usually do if I want to. Do you think I could come in for a moment?'
'Yes, if you wish,' Anna said, standing back to admit her. 'I'm sorry if anything I've done has upset you. I knew Harry years ago and I thought we could be friends but…' She led the way into the kitchen. 'Would you like a cup of tea?'
'No thank you, I shan't impose on you,' Muriel said. 'As a matter of fact I came to thank you. Harry has had too much of his own way for years. It will do him good to learn he can't always bend others to his will.'
'If my friend hadn't come…'
'Is he the one who has been working on your house?' Muriel asked. 'I like the way you've had this kitchen done – it has soul. Everything is the same today, all gleaming surfaces and neat cabinets. Kitchens used to be individual, but not anymore – if Harry gets his hands on them anyway.'
'It depends on the house,' Anna said. 'I have a modern kitchen at home, but I thought this was better here.'
'Yes, it is,' Muriel agreed. She frowned. 'Harry won't come near you again. You needn't worry about him – and he won't take your friend to court. I've told him that this is his last chance. If he doesn't behave I really shall go and live in Spain, but it won't be a separation: I shall divorce him. Most of the money was mine for a start. He wouldn't have told you that, of course, but I'm an equal partner in the business. If I take my money out he would lose face – and he wouldn't like that or a humiliating divorce. I know things about Harry that would make your hair stand on end.' She laughed as she saw the surprise in Anna's face. 'No, I'm not as meek and mild as I look. And Harry knows it.'
'I don't know what to say. I don't think I could put up with him the way he is…and don't imagine I ever wanted anything more than a casual friendship, because I didn't. I should have said no when he asked me to lunch but…' she shook her head, unable to explain that she had remembered Harry from years ago and that the memories had been pleasant.
'I know you were childhood sweethearts,' Muriel said. 'He told me about you years ago, and I think he has always remembered you as being special.'
'Well, he will have changed his mind now.'
'Harry knows he has behaved badly. He is angry now but he will get over it. I'm making him come to Spain with me for a holiday. I hope if we meet in future that we can at least be civil to one another. I appreciate your not informing the police about Brutus.'
'It wouldn't have done any good, and I wouldn't want to be the cause of him having to be put down - but you should get a muzzle for him, just in case.'
'I have one. I just don't like using it – but I'll be more careful in future.' She smiled at Anna, looking a bit regretful 'I'll go now and leave you alone, but I wanted to clear up any misunderstandings. You won't report Harry to the police, will you?'
'It would be embarrassing for everyone and no real harm was done – except to his nose.' She looked at Muriel Crabbe with a twinkle in her eyes and saw an answering gleam. 'Why don't we just forget it?'
'Thank you, Anna. You are a nice person. I wish we could be friends, but it wouldn't work.'
'No, perhaps not,' Anna said and went with her to the door, locking it again after seeing her out. She felt relieved by Muriel's visit because she had wondered if Harry would come back seeking revenge, but now she could relax. She had no doubt that his wife had more control over him than anyone guessed, and if he hadn't been so violent and insulting towards her, she might have found it in her heart to feel sympathy for him.
Anna's mobile rang as she was settling down to sleep some time later. She answered it because she guessed it would be Tom, returning her call, but she couldn't help yawning.
'It's late,' she said. 'Where have you been?'
'I went out to dinner at the golf club. There was no reason for me to stay home, was there? And it is easier to eat out than get something for myself.'
'We're not going to have an argument tonight, are we?'
'Not from me,' Tom said. 'Susie rang me a few minutes ago. I gave her your mobile number again. She had been trying to ring you, but she had got one digit wrong. She said she will wait until she gets home now. I think she wants to see you. They will be back Sunday night, but quite late I think.'
'I shall have most of the cottage done in another day or so,' Anna said. 'If she wants me, I can come home after Sunday.'
'What is happening on Sunday?'
'I'm going swimming with a friend.'
'I didn't know you had any friends down there.' There was a growling suspicion in his voice.
'Well, I do now,' she said. 'Milo is not six yet and I've promised so I shall keep my word.'
'Is he the builder's son?'
'Enrique isn't really a builder,' Anna said. 'Or perhaps he was in Spain. I don't really know how he learned his trade, but he is very talented. You will have to come down and look one day, Tom. I am really pleased with the way he has transformed the cottage. Of course, I've done quite a bit of the decorating myself. I'm going to buy a cream leather sofa tomorrow for the living room, and I might buy a TV soon if I can afford it. There is one here already, but it isn't much good. I should like Freeview…it may not be as good as we’ve got at home, but you can get more than the normal channels.'
'You sound as if you plan to spend time there?'
'I should like to – but we'll talk about that when I come home. I'm very tired. Would you mind if I switched off now?'
'I wish you were here,' he said suddenly.
'At the moment I wish it too,' Anna said. 'Goodnight, Tom.'
She switched off, closing her eyes as she snuggled down into the covers. She had felt a pang of regret when she heard that softer note in Tom's voice, nostalgia for the past – a time when she had felt truly happy. She had loved Tom very much, drifting contentedly through the years, but something had changed. She wasn't sure how she felt now. Even if there was an explanation for Tom's attitude of late, if it could be the way it once was…would she want to go back?
She wasn't sure that she could, because she wasn't sure that she was the same Anna Hanwell who had come down to the cottage seeking a refuge.
Anna finished the wallpapering in her sitting room on Saturday morning. She looked round at her work, feeling pride in what she had achieved. The muted colours of cream, dark red and dull gold she had chosen had given the room a warmth and charm that had been entirely missing at the start. She had carted the things she didn't want to the shed outside, which had got rid of the clutter and given prominence to the good pieces of furniture, of which there were actually quite a few. The ugly old sideboard had gone, exchanged for a Windsor chair she had seen at the barn, which would go in the bedroom.
The Welsh dresser was an old one and its wood had come to life with a couple of applications of good beeswax, and the pad foot side table was lovely now that it wasn't hidden under piles of rubbish. There was a pretty wine table and a bureau that she wanted to keep, also an elbow chair, but everything else had gone outside in the garage. She would get someone to come out and clear the rubbish away when she was ready. All the room wanted now was two small sofas. She had decided that a matching pair would be better than one large one, and then it would be finished.
She drove into town and spent most of the afternoon shopping, but she didn't buy the TV. Tom knew more about that sort of thing, and she thought she might ask for his opinion before buying it. Besides, she wanted to settle Enrique's bill before she lashed out too deeply. She knew it must be mounting up, because she had asked for a lot more than they had agreed at the start. The new doors were quite expensive, but she didn't mind because they were worth every penny.
When she got home, she unpacked the food she had bought, but then decided that she didn't feel like eating alone. She was tempted to ring Enrique, but knew that it wasn't a good idea. She would go to the pub she had used when she first arrived and treat herself to scampi in a basket with a salad.
She thought of the phone call from Tom the previous night and wished that he was here. If they could just find the middle ground and stop quarrelling all the time maybe things would be all right again.
Enrique and Milo arrived at the cottage at ten o'clock on Sunday morning, just as they had arranged. Anna caught the child's excitement as she joined them in the van, feeling pleased to be with her friends. The loneliness and nostalgia she had felt the previous evening had vanished and she felt the happiness bubbling inside her.
It was pleasant at the swimming pool. Anna had bought a new bathing suit, because she hadn't had one with her at the cottage, and she'd been surprised to discover that she needed only a size twelve. She hadn't really been aware of the weight loss until she stood in the changing rooms and looked at herself, feeling delighted by the improvement in her hips and waist.
She felt a bit shy as she walked out of the changing rooms to meet Enrique and Milo, but the look in Enrique's eyes told her that there was no need. She wasn't a svelte sixteen-year-old but she had nothing to be ashamed of either.
Enrique looked fantastic in his swimming trunks, and she caught her breath as she saw his muscled torso with the shadowing of dark hair down to his navel and beyond. He was physically fit and looked very strong, and she was once again aware of a surging desire. However, she concentrated on Milo, who held her hand and urged her into the water at the shallow end.
After that all thought of shyness or sexual desire vanished as both she and Enrique romped and played with the child. It was his day and they indulged him, making him shriek with laughter as he splashed frantically at them and was splashed in return. Anna contented herself in the shallow end, swimming a few widths of the baths, and encouraging Milo to do the same. Enrique did about ten fast laps of the pool and then came back to them, playing with a rubber ring that helped Milo keep afloat when he needed it.
It was gone twelve when they left the baths, having changed and met in the café for a drink before they went on to Macdonald's, where they all had burgers of varying sizes. Anna had the plain kind, but both Milo and Enrique had the cheeseburgers with chips, though she stuck to the side salad. Milo had a Coke, but she and Enrique chose coffee.
After lunch Enrique drove to a pleasant spot by the river and they all went for a long walk, stopping to feed the swans and ducks they encountered in little flotillas. They bought ice creams from a man selling the delicious soft ones from a van, and Milo asked for a chocolate flake in his, though they chose not to indulge.
'Do you think I indulge him too much?' Enrique asked as the boy ran ahead of them. 'I try not to but Sunday was always a special day for us when his mother was alive. I try to make it the same now.'
'A little spoiling does no harm,' Anna said. 'Not too many burgers though or chips – though I'm guilty of that as well. Robbie and Susie love them and we probably have them more often than we should at home.'
'Doesn't everyone these days?' Enrique smiled at her. 'But I think with exercise it does no harm.' He hesitated, and then, 'A few more days and the cottage will be done. What will you do then?'
'I don't know,' Anna said. 'I have to go home to see my daughter soon. I think she is worried about something, though I'm not sure what.'
'Will you come back? Or do you intend to sell?'
'I bought some new sofas yesterday,' Anna said. 'I would like to keep the cottage, use it as often as we can – but it depends…' She sighed, because she was feeling emotional, confused. 'I shall have to talk to Tom. But I may get a valuation from my estate agent, just to see what it might be worth if I do sell.'
Enrique looked at her, his gaze serious. 'You must go home and talk to Tom, Anna. You have done enough work, leave the rest to me – yes?'
'Yes, I think perhaps that will be best. I shall go home tomorrow and return later in the week, and then I shall pay you for all your hard work.'
'You are pleased with what we have done together?'
'Very pleased,' Anna said. She wished that their time together was not coming to an end, but it was stupid to let herself wish for the moon. 'I never expected to be able to do so much or that it would look so good.'
'The building was sound,' Enrique told her. 'What we have done is bring it back to life.'
'Yes,' Anna said happily. 'That is exactly what we've done.'
She didn't say it, but she felt that he had brought her back to life too, waking her from the feeling of unhappiness that had been creeping up on her of late.
Her mobile rang at nine-thirty that evening. Anna was just about to run herself a bath and go to bed, because she wanted to be up early the next morning.
'Hello darling,' she said as she saw that Susie was calling her. 'How are you? Did you have a lovely time?'
'Yes, it was lovely. The hotel was good and the food – but I wanted to talk to you and you were never home. Where are you, Mum?'
'I'm down at Gran's cottage,' Anna said. 'I've had someone in to renovate it, and I've done a lot of the decorating myself. It is beginning to look really nice.'
'When are you coming home? I'm worried about the baby. I've been feeling so wretched, and I have that scan booked at the hospital for Tuesday. Had you forgotten?'
'Did you tell me about it?' Anna could not recall her daughter having mentioned an appointment at the hospital. 'It was all such a rush before you went away, love. Anyway, I'm coming home tomorrow so I shall be able to accompany you to the hospital. I expect it is routine anyway.'
'Yes, I know it is just a routine scan,' Susie said, 'but I've been feeling so tired and I've had a lot of backache. 'I'm worried that something is wrong, Mum.'
'All first time mothers worry,' Anna said. 'I was tired when I had Robbie but not when I had you – perhaps it means you're having a boy. Are you going to ask whether your baby is male or female?'
'I'm not sure,' Susie said. 'I want to know and yet I don't. Jack says it's better if it is a surprise.'
'Well, you can ask and still make it a surprise for him,' Anna said. 'But if you know you can choose what colours you want, instead of going for white or lemon.'
'I think I should like everything white for a start,' Susie said. 'I don't know what to buy, Mum. Can you come shopping with me – if everything is all right? I don't want to buy anything until I know.'
'Of course I shall help,' Anna promised. 'We might have some stuff left somewhere – not clothes, but other bits and pieces.'
'I want all new,' Susie told her. 'Jack says I'm to buy whatever I like. He's so funny, Mum. Nothing is too good for me or the baby.'
'Well, that is as it should be,' Anna said, pleased that Susie was happy. 'I'm going to get an early night tonight, because I have a long drive tomorrow. I'll ring you when I get home, shall I?'
'Yes, please,' Susie said and hesitated. 'Why have you been down there all that time? You're not going to live there, are you?'
'I shouldn't think so,' Anna said. 'We might spend sometime here when we can.'
'I thought you would be here for when the baby is born,' Susie said. 'Jack's mother wants to baby-sit and she is already knitting things for us. I thought you would want that too?'
'I shall be there if I can, for as much of the time as I can.'
'What does that mean?' Susie demanded. 'You aren't splitting up are you?'
'I really don't think I can talk about this now,' Anna said. 'I don't quite know how things stand at the moment. I shall see you on Tuesday. Don't worry about the baby, darling. I am sure everything will be fine.'
She switched off, because she didn't want to talk about the situation between her and Tom until she knew more about it herself. He had been acting oddly for some weeks now, though she sensed that things had started to go wrong months ago. She had suspected him of having an affair, but then she'd wondered if she was wrong. He had been so loving towards her when her mother died – and yet he hadn't wanted to make love for a long time. Apart from that one night when he had come to bed having drunk more than usual.
It was no use thinking about it now, Anna decided as she stepped into the bath. She was going home for a few days, which should give them plenty of time to talk.
The house was empty when Anna got in late the following afternoon. She had expected that Tom would be home, because he knew she was coming, but there was no sign of him by the time she went to bed. She lay waiting for the sound of his key in the lock for some time but then she drifted into sleep, waking early in the morning to discover that he hadn't come in – at least he hadn't been to bed.
She shrugged on her dressing gown and went downstairs to make coffee and toast, beginning to feel anxious. It wasn't like Tom to stay out all night without letting her know. In fact he never had, except when he was away on one of his trips and she'd known where he was. This time she didn't know and it bothered her.
She tried ringing his mobile a couple of times, but got an irritating voice telling her that the person she was ringing was not available. Tom seldom turned his mobile off, which might mean he just wasn't answering. But why wouldn't he answer her? He had wanted her to come home so why hadn't he let her know he wouldn't be there? Was he punishing her for staying away so long?
She telephoned Susie, arranging that she would go to the house Jack had rented and pick her up at ten o'clock so that they would be in good time for her appointment.
'Did your father say anything to you about staying away longer than the weekend?'
'No, he didn't say anything about it,' Susie told her. 'Why do you ask?'
'Because he didn't come home last night. I thought he would be back on Monday night. He said he wanted to talk but he hasn't turned up and I can't get him on his mobile.'
'Oh, you know Dad,' Susie said. 'He's probably been working so hard that he hasn't had time to ring you.'
'Yes, you could be right,' Anna said. 'I will see you later.'
She was thoughtful as she went upstairs to get ready. She thought she heard her phone while she was in the bedroom, and when she came down later she discovered that Tom had left a message to say he would see her that evening.
Anna was relieved and then angry. She had been worried that he might have had an accident, but it seemed that Susie was right – it had been work as usual. Leaving the house to pick up her daughter, Anna tried to block her sense of frustration. She had hoped that things might be different, that Tom wanted to sort things out, because otherwise… but she didn't want to think about that now. She had to concentrate on her daughter for the moment.
Susie was looking tanned and well, her hair streaked by the sun. Anna hugged her, thinking how lovely she was and how lucky she was to have her.
'I've missed you,' she said. 'But I knew you must be having a wonderful time, darling.'
'Yes, I did, but I missed you, Mum,' Susie said and hugged her again. 'When I spoke to Dad he seemed upset because you'd gone off and left him. It isn't permanent is it?'
'To be honest, I don't really know what the future holds,' Anna said. 'Don't look so distressed, love. It won't make any difference to you. You have Jack and the baby, and I shall still love you whatever happens – and so will your father.'
'But it won't be the same if you're not around,' Susie said. 'I thought we could do lots of things together – shopping for baby things and talking, cooking things…'
'Yes, and I would love to do all of those things,' Anna said. 'We shall spend time together, love, but I thought you were going to keep working for a few months?'
'Yes, I am…but there will be weekends and my days off.'
'And I can be with you some of those times,' Anna said. 'But I can't promise I shall always be just around the corner. You can phone me…but I don't know yet. I don't know what Tom wants.'
'Are you saying it is his fault?'
'It's no one's fault,' Anna said. 'Things haven't been quite right between us for a while. I'm not sure if we can sort it out or not.'
Susie looked at her accusingly. 'Are you having an affair?'
'No, I'm not,' Anna said. 'But if I were it wouldn't change anything. I have a life too you know. I'm not just a wife and mother.'
'This is because of the shop,' Susie said and looked resentful. 'You hated giving it up, didn't you?'
'I was upset at the time,' Anna admitted. 'I'm not still harbouring a grudge if that's what you think. Your father wants to talk to me. He may want a divorce. He has spoken of selling the house…' She saw the shock in Susie's eyes. 'Would that make so much difference to you now? You have a home of your own.'
'But I want you to be there when I need you, especially until the baby is born.'
'Speaking of which we had better get going,' Anna said. 'We don't want to be late for your appointment.' She sighed inwardly. Susie was still the demanding little girl she had always been, expecting her mother to make everything right. One day she was going to have to learn to grow up, and to realize that Anna couldn't always make the pain go away or kiss her to make things better.
Susie started to talk about her honeymoon when they were in the car. She talked of walking on the beach at midnight, of dancing and swimming in the pool and of how good Jack was to her. Anna knew that she was nervous, and in turn she told her about the cottage, Enrique and Milo. Susie was quiet as she finished speaking.
'You like him a lot, don't you?'
'Enrique? Yes, I do like him. He is generous and honest – and I find him attractive.'
'Is he the reason you don't know whether you are coming home to stay?'
'No, Enrique isn't the reason,' Anna said, though in her heart she knew that he was a part of it. She had found a new content working in the cottage with him, and because of him, but she wasn't foolish enough to believe that she could begin a new life with him. 'I just want something more from my life than I have at the moment. I know that Tom isn't happy the way things are either. We have to talk and until then I don't know anything.'
'Don't go away, Mum,' Susie said, 'at least not too far. If Dad did sell the house he would have to give you half of the money. You could buy something near Cambridge – couldn't you?'
'Perhaps,' Anna said reluctant to discuss it. 'Let's leave it for now, love. We're here to see about the baby, and that's the most important thing for the moment.'
'Supposing it is dead or something – or malformed…'
'Why on earth should it be? You are young and perfectly healthy, darling. I am sure that you will be told everything is fine.'
Susie was in a better frame of mind when they left the hospital. As Anna had predicted everything was proceeding normally, and although she wasn't going to tell Jack unless he asked, she knew that she was carrying a boy child.
'I'm so relieved, Mum,' she told Anna as they got back into the car. 'I had convinced myself that something was wrong.'
'Well, you can set your mind at rest now,' Anna said and smiled at her. 'Shall we go into town, take a look in Mothercare and Robert Sayles? We might find something you like for the baby.'
'Can we do that?' Susie said, looking pleased. 'You haven't got to get back home for anything?'
'I have all day,' Anna said and smiled at her. 'We'll have a coffee and a snack, and buy a few pretty things, and then I'll drive you home. I am sure Jack will be anxious to know how you are. Do you want to borrow my mobile to tell him the good news?'
'Yes, thanks,' Susie said and took the phone from her mother's purse. 'Oh, you've got a missed call.'
'I switched off while I was in the hospital,' Anna said. 'It will either be Beth or your father I expect.'
'No – it is from Enrique, that's what it says here.'
'Oh, is it,' Anna shook her head as she offered the phone. 'Not while I'm driving, Susie. I'll check what he has to say later. It is probably something to do with the cottage. He may have had a problem.'
Susie nodded, dialling her husband's number. For the next several minutes she talked happily to her husband, switching off only when Anna parked in the Lion Yard carpark.
Anna picked up her purse and locked the car. They walked the short distance into the town centre, stopping to glance in the windows of various shops until they came to the ones they had been looking for. The next hour was spent admiring all the lovely baby clothes on offer and other items Susie would need when the baby came. Anna bought her some of the first baby outfits she would require and a beautiful basket to keep her talc and creams in.
Susie saw some maternity tops she liked and took four into the changing rooms to try on. Anna took out her phone and dialled the voice mailbox.
'I just wanted to know if you got home all right,' Enrique's voice was warm, sensuous, making Anna's stomach clench with desire. 'I've been hanging the first of the doors today and they look good. I wondered if you wanted me to put a high gloss finish on them or leave them natural? I think they look best as they are, but I thought I would check with you. Get back to me when you can, Anna.'
It was as she had told Susie, just something to do with the cottage, and yet Anna knew that that wasn't quite true. Enrique had wanted to hear her voice, the way she had wanted to hear his. She had resisted because she knew she had to learn not to wait for the sound of his voice in the cottage, not to look forward to the moment she would see him, see his smile.
She dialled his number, her heart racing as she waited for him to answer. 'Anna? How are you?'
'I'm fine. I've just been to the hospital with Susie. All her tests are positive, and now we are shopping for baby things.'
'Sounds like fun?'
'Yes, it is,' she agreed. But her mind was saying that she would rather be at the cottage with him. 'It will be strange to be a grandma but I expect I shall enjoy it when I get used to it.'
'You like children. Milo sends his love.'
'Yes, I like children. Give my love to him, won't you?'
'Of course. What did you decide about the doors?'
'You know I trust your judgement. I think natural would be best.'
'When will you be back?' His voice seemed to throb and she thought that he was missing her, as she was missing him.
'Perhaps on Thursday or Friday.'
'It depends,' Anna said. 'Susie is clinging a bit at the moment, but she will probably settle now that she knows everything is all right.'
'If I'm not here, let me know you are back.'
'Yes, of course. I have to pay you for all your hard work.'
'You know that isn't what I meant.'
'Yes, I know. Susie is coming now. I'll talk to you later.'
'Take care of yourself, Anna. Remember you have a life too.'
Anna smiled as she ended the call, turning to look at her daughter. 'Did you find anything you liked?'
'Not really,' Susie said. 'They all looked huge on me.'
'Well, you don't really need them yet do you?' Anna said. 'Besides, most of the young mums show their tums off at the early stages these days. Look at that girl over there.'
Susie followed her gaze and smiled. The girl was about her age but further advanced into her pregnancy, and she was wearing jeans that hugged her just below her waist and a sleeveless jumper that didn't quite cover her bulge, revealing a glimpse of smooth brown flesh.
'Sexy,' Susie said and Anna nodded.
Pleased with themselves and their purchases they walked from the store in harmony. Anna drove Susie home and stayed for a cup of tea, and then left her. She decided to call in and see if Beth was at home, but when she got there the house was empty. Anna frowned, because she had thought Beth must be home from the hospital by now – unless things had gone badly.
However, when she got in, she found a message on the answering service, telling her that Gerry had taken Beth to see her mother who lived in St Ives, a small town not too far away. Beth asked if she would come and see her the next day. Anna returned the call and left a message to say that she would visit in the morning.
The house looked in need of some tender loving care. Anna ran the vacuum cleaner over the carpets, polished and brought some flowers in from the garden. She had just finished giving the bath a rinse when she heard Tom come in.
'Anna…' he called. 'Are you here?'
'Yes, Tom. I've just been cleaning the bathroom,' she answered from the top of the stairs. 'I'm coming down now and I'll make a cup of tea.'
'I'll put the kettle on,' he said and disappeared into the kitchen.
Anna collected her bits and pieces and went downstairs, putting them away in the sink unit. Tom had gone into the sitting room, but he came back as she was washing her hands, laying a large bunch of carnations and roses on the table. They weren't the kind you could buy from the station or a garage, and she realised that he had been to a florist to buy them for her. It was a long time since he'd done that, but then, she had been able to supply them herself for the past four years.
'Oh, they are lovely, Tom,' she said and picked them up to inhale the perfume. 'I picked a few from the garden but these will look gorgeous in the sitting room.'
'I know you love your flower arranging,' Tom said, giving her an awkward, slightly uneasy glance. 'Did you go to the hospital with Susie?'
'Yes, and everything is fine, just as I thought,' Anna replied with a smile as she carried her flowers to the sink. She ran the tap to put the stems in water, because she wanted to arrange them later. 'I think she is a bit happier now. It was just first time nerves. After all, she is very young to be having a baby.'
'Too young,' Tom growled, 'but I suppose it's too late to worry about it now. Jack is all right. He will look after her.'
'Yes, I believe he will. She is clinging a bit at the moment, because she is scared of what is happening to her and she needs to talk to a woman, but as the months go by she will be easier in her mind.'
'Were you like that when you had Robbie?'
'I might have been,' Anna said, 'but I couldn't talk to Mum about things like that: she didn't want to know. I seem to remember there was a nurse I liked at the doctor's surgery. She told me not to worry about little things, because if anything was really wrong I would know and so would they from the tests they did. After that, I stopped worrying.'
Tom nodded, his eyes travelling over her, noticing her clothes. 'You look nice in that,' he said. 'Are the trousers new?'
Anna laughed, the sound warm and amused. 'I had these about five years ago, but then I put on weight and I couldn't wear them. I have several things in the wardrobe that I can get into again now, so if you see me wearing "new" clothes you'll know why. Most of what I have is too big for me now.'
'I didn't know you had been on a diet?'
'I started before Susie's wedding but wasn't very successful,' Anna said ruefully, 'but at the cottage on my own I didn't eat such big meals and I've been working hard.'
'Well, it looks good,' Tom told her an odd expression in his eyes. 'You always look lovely, Anna – so young and full of life.' A small sigh escaped him.'
'Thank you, sir she said,' Anna quipped, her eyes sparkling at him. 'But you have always kept your figure, Tom, and your hair. You look younger than most men of your age.'
'I don't always feel it these days,' Tom said and turned away from her to look out at the garden. 'I cut the lawn last week, but I'm afraid I …didn't get time this week.'
'It doesn't matter,' Anna told him. 'I can do it – perhaps tomorrow afternoon when I come back from Beth's. Before I go back to the cottage anyway.'
'Do you have to go back so soon?'
'Enrique should finish his work this week or next,' Anna said. 'He has done most of the important stuff, but there are bits and pieces we keep finding that need attention.'
'I could probably do some of those for you.'
'Yes, if you had the time,' Anna said, 'but that isn't likely, is it?'
'I might have more time soon,' Tom said and turned to her. She was startled by something in his eyes, but couldn't be sure what it meant. 'I want to make changes, Anna. Quite a few changes.'
Anna felt chilled, because she was afraid she knew what was coming. 'What kind of changes, Tom?'
'Well, I am considering taking early retirement,' Tom said. 'I'm not sure if I can afford it, but I'm going into the whole pension thing and I should know within a few days.'
'Early retirement?' Anna frowned. 'How long has this been in your mind?'
'Oh, a few weeks…perhaps longer,' Tom said vaguely. 'As I said, I'm not sure if I can afford it.'
'You've put Robbie's money away,' Anna said. 'And Susie is married. I don't see why you shouldn't – if you think it is right for you.' She looked at him for a moment or two. 'But you've put so much into your work, Tom. What will you do with yourself if you give up?'
'Work isn't everything,' Tom said and she felt that he was holding back on her, concealing his true reasons for what he was planning. 'We still have a mortgage on the house. Not a huge one, but it would be a drain on us if I gave up my work. I'll have my pension of course, and a settlement from the firm, but that won't be more than forty thousand pounds, and that isn't a great deal of money these days. It would finish the mortgage but then we would have only my pension to live on.'
'Surely your share of the business is worth more?'
'On paper it is probably worth four times that,' Tom agreed. 'But I couldn't take all my money out in one go or it might collapse. I shall have some shares left, but I don't want to sell them until things pick up again. Business hasn't been as good as it might be financially recently. We had some trouble with a drug that was banned a few months ago, because we had overstocked it, and we got the minimum compensation. Actually, we are still waiting for most of it. I could take a lump sum and hold on to most of my shares. They wouldn't bring much in, but I might sell them at a better price in a few years time.'
Anna nodded, understanding why he had been looking tired and worried recently. 'So what are you saying to me, Tom? What do you want to do?'
'Well, we could sell the house. I had it valued properly last week, and they tell me we might get as much as three hundred and eighty thousand pounds. The agent said we could put four hundred on but might have to wait a long time for a customer. If we accept his guidelines, he thinks it will sell quickly.'
'I see…and what do we do then?'
'I'm not sure. That is why I needed to talk to you, Anna. Would you be prepared to live in something smaller…maybe one of those modern houses out at Cambourne?'
'I don't think we would find much under three hundred thousand there,' Anna said. 'It would hardly be worth the move.'
'We would have some capital,' Tom said. 'Enough so that we could have a bit of spending money – and there's your cottage.'
'You want me to sell the cottage?'
'Perhaps it might make things easier,' Tom said. 'I don't see how we can keep this house and the cottage. I'm not sure what pension I shall get yet, but it is bound to be less than it would have been if I had gone on working until sixty as I planned – but there is an alternative. We could find a cheaper house.'
'We might find a semi-detached,' Anna said, shocked because she hadn't imagined he would suggest anything like that. 'Have you looked at the prices of property in Cambridge recently?'
'It doesn't have to be here…there are cheaper places to live. One of the villages perhaps.'
'Oh, Tom, I don't know,' Anna said. 'I don't think I want a semi-detached. You will have to let me think about this…'
'I know you might find it strange at first, but I can't afford to keep this house and do what I want…'
'It is always what you want, isn't it?' Anna said. 'I had to give up the shop because you didn't want me working, and now you want to throw everything we have away.'
'So I'm the selfish one now am I?' Tom glared at her. 'Well, if that's what you think there is no point in discussing this further.'
He started to walk from the room. Anna went after him, catching his arm. 'What has brought this on, Tom? Why have you only just told me what you were thinking? I thought you were having an affair.' The guilt in his face told her that she was right. 'You are, aren't you? don't lie to me, Tom. I can see it in your face.'
'No, I'm not,' Tom said. 'It's over. It was over months ago…'
The colour drained from her face. She turned away from him, crossing her arms over herself as she felt the pain swathe through her. She had known when Tom went away from her, sensed it inside, but she hadn't wanted to believe it. He laid a tentative hand on her shoulder but she shrugged away from him.
'I'm sorry, Anna. I've wanted to tell you but I couldn't.'
Anna whirled on him, her eyes blazing with anger. 'Oh, you told me,' she said bitterly. 'Not in so many words, but in the way you avoided touching me, the weekends away…'
'Most of them were for work.'
'But some of them weren't,' Anna said, reading the truth in his eyes. 'You betrayed what we had, Tom. I've wondered what was wrong. I didn't want to believe it was happening, but deep down I knew.'
'I'm sorry. It was just a fling. She didn't mean anything to me.'
'So that makes it all right does it?'
'Don't say it like that. I wish it hadn't happened. I was feeling neglected because you were always working…'
'Yes, of course, blame the shop. It's an easy get out for you, isn't it? I was working, having a life of my own so that gave you the right to go to bed with other women, did it?'
'Only one – and not for long,' Tom said. 'I realized that it wasn't anything special and I finished it. If I could change things I would, but believe me I've paid for it. I felt so guilty that I couldn't…' He broke off but Anna knew what he was saying. He hadn't been able to make love to her because he felt guilty. 'Please don't look at me that way. Maybe I haven't been a perfect husband recently, but there are reasons.'
'Yes, I can imagine,' Anna said. 'I've seen your eyes light up when a young woman looks at you, Tom. Well, I can never be seventeen again, but some people think I'm quite nice as I am.'
'I don't want you to be seventeen.'
'Just twenty one?'
'Oh for goodness sake,' Tom said. 'I'm going out. Don't wait up for me.'
'Why would I?' she asked bitterly. 'It wouldn't do me any good, would it?'
He didn't answer, picking up his jacket and slamming the front door as he left. Anna stared after him, feeling angry. First of all he tells her that is planning on selling their house and then that he had an affair – and he expected that she would take it all with a smile and a shrug. Well, this time she'd had enough.
If she hadn't promised to see Beth the next day she would have walked out that minute.
Beth looked so much better that Anna stared for a few seconds and then hugged her. Beth was smiling, seeming happy and more relaxed than she had been in a long time.
'I thought you would be drained after that radiotherapy,' Anna admitted. 'I've heard it gives patients a pretty rotten time.'
'I didn't have to have it,' Beth said. 'They talked about it, but when they did further tests they decided it wasn't necessary. It can be quite lethal and they would only have used it in my case as a last result. I appear to be responding at the moment. I may need more chemo in a few weeks, but at the moment they say they will monitor my condition and see how we go. In fact they are very pleased with me.'
'That's great,' Anna said. 'I am so pleased, Beth. I was very worried about you for a while.'
'You were worried?' Beth pulled a face. 'Gerry was planning the funeral and I was trying to decide whether I wanted to be buried and eaten by worms or become cinders.'
'Beth!' Anna was torn between laughter and tears. 'You haven't changed much!'
'Oh but I have,' Beth said. 'I've lost weight and that has to be good, but it is much more than that. I know how much my family means to me now, and I live every minute, making the most of it. Gerry wants us to buy a place in Spain, as I've told you. We think we might buy a bungalow somewhere in this country. We don't need this big house and we shall be spending a lot of the winter abroad. We've seen a few properties we like in villages in the area, and we are going to start looking to change.'
'That's odd,' Anna said. 'Tom was talking about selling our house. We shall have to look for something cheaper if he goes for early retirement …' She added mentally that they might both be looking for separate homes.
'We could go house hunting together,' Beth suggested. 'We might find something in the same area.'
'Yes, we might,' Anna agreed but she sounded and looked doubtful.
'What's wrong? Something is I can sense it.'
'Oh, it's nothing really.' Anna found that she didn't want to download her problems onto Beth. She had enough of her own, and besides, she was still hurting. At the moment she was trying to come to terms with Tom's revelations, and it wasn't easy. 'We're just having rows all the time.'
'About selling the house?'
'That and other things…Tom wants me to sell Gran's cottage.'
'And you don't want to, is that right?'
'I'm not sure what I want,' Anna said, which was true. She was mixed up inside and felt like running away. 'I love the cottage now it is nearly finished. I've worked so hard on it and so has Enrique. I don't think I can bear to sell it and yet….Susie is upset at the idea that I might go and live down there.'
Beth looked startled. 'You wouldn't?' Her brows rose. 'Is it the lure of the Spanish lover?'
Anna chuckled as she saw the expression in Beth's eyes. 'Perhaps. He is rather special – but he will finish his work very soon now and then I probably shan't see him much even if I'm down there.'
'But you would like to,' Beth said, a little smile on her lips. 'Anna, you are a dark horse! What about Tom?'
'It isn't just Tom,' Anna said. 'There are a lot of reasons why I should sell and come back this way, even if not to the house – or Tom – but I can't stop wishing that I could just run away into the sunset…'
Beth laughed. 'We all feel like that sometimes,' Anna. 'It happened to me when I was thirty. I met someone and we almost had an affair. He was very passionate and I wanted to but something held me back. The children were young and Gerry was working so hard to build a good life for us…'
'You've never told me this before?'
'Well, it was over before we became friends,' Beth said, a look of nostalgia in her eyes. 'I was tempted but I didn't fall – because I couldn't have left my kids and he wouldn't have wanted them. I felt miserable for ages after I sent him away, but I got over it in the end.'
'Yes, I suppose it all evens out in the end,' Anna said, though at the moment she was too confused to feel anything but a tight knot of emotion in her chest. 'Well, let's forget about it. I want to hear where you are thinking of moving if and when you find what you want…'
Anna locked the bedroom door when she went up that night. Tom hadn't phoned and he wasn't home by half past ten, so as far as she was concerned he could sleep in another room. She was still angry, hurt that he had been keeping his plans to himself, expecting her to fall into line. The fact that he had confessed to an affair had made it easier in a way, because it was better out in the open. She had known in her heart anyway.
She was drifting into sleep when she heard the door handle rattle. She steeled herself to ignore it, even when Tom called out to her.
'Go away, Tom,' she said. 'I don't want to talk to you at the moment. Sleep in Robbie's room for once.'
'Anna…let me in,' Tom persisted. 'Please. I need to talk to you.'
'I think we did enough talking yesterday,' Anna said. 'Leave me alone, Tom. I'm tired.'
He rattled the door angrily but then she heard him curse a couple of times before turning away. He was going down the hall to Robbie's room. She rolled over to her side, feeling the sting of tears. It hurt to shut him out like this, but she didn't want another row, and at the moment she couldn't bear him to touch her.
Tom left early in the morning. He didn't speak to her before he left and Anna felt as if the rift between them was widening. There was no point in her staying here at the moment. She needed to get away by herself so that she could think things over. She wasn't sure that she wanted to go along with Tom's plans; it might be better if she made the break now while she was still young enough to find a decent life for herself.
She phoned Susie and told her she was going to the cottage for a few days. Her daughter sounded a bit sulky, but Anna shrugged it off. Susie would get over it and in time she might come to see that her mother needed a life too.
She debated whether or not to leave Tom a note, but decided against it. She wasn't sure what she wanted to say to him at this time. He seemed to take it for granted that she would fall into line with his wishes, but she hated the idea of life in the kind of house that he seemed to be insisting they buy. She would much rather live at the cottage.
She packed her suitcase with clothes that she hadn't been able to wear in ages, and took some of her flower arranging things with her. She had a couple of ideas in her head about what the future might bring, but she wanted to be sure first. It would be stupid to throw away what she had unless she believed she could replace it with something better.
The drive down was busy and difficult, and Anna stopped a few times for drinks and a break, because she was tired. She hadn't slept much for the past couple of nights and she was feeling low in energy, as much because of her tangled emotions as lack of sleep.
It was past seven in the evening when she reached the cottage. She let herself in, shivering as the cold struck her. Enrique must have let the Rayburn go out because she wasn't here. She switched on lights all over the place, giving herself an illusion of warmth. Filling her coffee machine, she went into the sitting room and switched on the small electric fire. It wasn't adequate because it had rained that day and the cottage felt chilly. The Rayburn warmed the house right through, connected as it was to a couple of radiators. She hadn't needed them on before because it had been so warm, but now the temperature had dropped.
She realised that she would need to improve the heating system if she wanted to live here in the winter. Perhaps a couple of storage heaters might be easier to install than new central heating: one upstairs and one in the hall would make all the difference.
She made her coffee and took a tray through to the sitting room. She liked her décor; it was comforting and stylish, but she was conscious that the cottage was empty. Somehow it didn't seem the same as it had when she was working on it with Enrique. She'd had a purpose in mind, and the sound of Enrique working somewhere had made her feel that the cottage was alive, but now it was silent and she felt totally alone.
If she divorced Tom it would be like this most of the time, wherever she lived, Anna realized. She could find work and she would make new friends, perhaps one day she might fall in love again…but on the other hand she might not. She might spend the rest of her life like this. She had thought she was running away from her unhappiness when she drove down here, but it had been with her all the time. You could run away from a place or a person, but not from what was inside you.
Suddenly, Anna started to cry. It was all such a mess, and she didn't know whether it was her fault or Tom's. She hadn't exactly welcomed his ideas with open arms – but why did it have to be like that? Why couldn't they plan something together, something that would give both of them what they needed?
She was sitting staring into space, lost in her thoughts, the tears trickling down her cheek when she heard a slight sound, and, turning her head she saw Enrique. For a moment she thought she was dreaming, and then he came to her. She stood up and went into his arms, leaning her head against his chest as the sobs tore from her.
'Anna my love,' he murmured against her hair. 'What is it that makes you so unhappy?'
Anna raised her head to look at him. The warmth of him was spreading into her, the comfort of his arms easing the ache inside her. She put up a hand to wipe away her tears, but Enrique did it for her, his fingers gentle as they smoothed her face.
'I'm such an idiot,' she said and moved away from him slightly. 'I'm so sorry, weeping all over you.'
'Do not apologize. It is not necessary. Tell me why you are unhappy?'
'Oh, it is just foolishness,' she said. 'I quarrelled with Tom again. He told me that he wants to give up work and sell the house – live in something smaller so that he has capital to indulge his hobbies. He liked golfing holidays, here and abroad, and I imagine that is what he plans.'
'And you do not share his love of golf?'
'Oh, it's not that so much. It's a man's thing. They go off in a group, no wives included, and it leaves me on my own. I don't mind sometimes but…' she shook her head. 'It sounds so petty when I say it like that, but it hasn't been much fun. But it isn't just that. He wants me to sell the cottage and…he told me that he had had an affair. It's over but it hurt me, though I knew.'
'You knew?' Enrique looked at her. 'You didn't accuse him or walk out on him even though you knew?'
'I sensed it but I couldn't be sure,' Anna said. 'I suppose I wanted to hang onto my marriage, and I was busy all the time. Now it is all different…'
'Do you want to divorce him?'
'I don't know,' Anna said. She looked up at him. 'We've been married a long time and there are the children. Susie would be upset. She wants me there for when she has the baby, and Robbie…' She sighed. 'I honestly don't know what I want – except that I don't want things to go on the way they have been for the past year or so. I can't live with Tom as we are now, quarrelling all the time. I would rather be alone.'
'Only you can make that decision,' Enrique said and touched her cheek as she took an involuntary step towards him. 'But you are entitled to your life, Anna. You are young and beautiful …'
'I shall be forty-three next week,' Anna said suddenly remembering with a little gulp.
'You will never be old,' he said and then he bent his head to kiss her, softly, tenderly with a lingering sweetness that deepened to hunger. His dark eyes seeming intense with a suppressed passion as he gazed into her face, smiling a little as if he took pleasure at looking at her, touching her. 'Some women are beautiful and sexy even when they are a great age. I think you will be one of them.'
'Enrique…' Anna breathed as she felt her stomach clench with desire. 'You make me feel so alive. Make love to me…please?'
He smiled, his hand caressing her hair, the back of her neck, sending shivers through her body. 'I have wanted to love you since the first moment we met,' he told her in a voice husky with passion. 'I think you know that for there was something between us from the start, no?'
'Yes, very much so,' Anna agreed. Her throat was tight because she wanted this so much, wanted to be touched, to feel the burn of his flesh against hers. She didn't feel cold anymore, she was hot – hot for him, her body tinglingly alive in a way that it had not been for a long long time. 'I fought it because I thought…' But it didn't matter now. For the moment they both wanted this, needed it and she could forget her doubts.
Enrique kissed her again, gently at first but then with increasing demand. Her mouth opened to the invasion of his tongue as the passion intensified between them. Now they were breathing hard, straining against each other as their need to feel and touch became overwhelming. Enrique's hand was at the fastening of her silk shirt. He undid the buttons slowly, his eyes never leaving her face as he pushed it back from her shoulders, revealing the lacy bra she wore and bending his head to lick the cleavage delicately with the tip of his tongue. Anna gasped, arching back as she felt her insides melt and she was aware of a longing to touch his flesh as he was touching hers.
Their clothes fell into a heap on the carpet as they undressed each other, taking their time despite the impatience both felt. His skin was so good to touch, Anna discovered, just as she had imagined it would be when she'd first seen him stripped to the waist and glistening with water. She shivered as he drew her close to him, nothing between them, feeling the burn of his flesh.
Enrique pulled cushions from the sofas, and then they were lying on the carpet in front of the fire she had switched on, side by side, looking into each other's eyes, touching and tasting, indulging their senses as they discovered the secret places of each other's body. Anna was burning up inside, arching and moaning as he explored her with his tongue and lips, making her gasp with pleasure. It was so long since she had felt like this, so long…
And then he was leaning over her, looking down into her eyes, his lips teasing her with little pecking kisses that made her whimper with need. As he lowered himself to meet her, she arched her back, opening to him, hot and moist and ready. She gasped with pleasure as he thrust deep inside her, the shock of it taking her breath, but then he withdrew, nudging at her with the smooth hard nub of his maleness, teasing her so that she cried out, begging for him to come back inside her. He slid right into her, so deeply that she arched and moaned in her delight, the sweet symphony of loving catching her up as they moved together in a slow sensuous dance.
Anna's nails clawed at his back, her body bucking and arching under him as she scaled heights that she had forgotten were there to be climbed. It was so good, so very good that she was lost, abandoned to all but the movement of his body, the taste of his sweat, and this feeling that engulfed her. Then, when she thought she could not bear anymore, she felt him come inside her, and the sensation was so sharp and sweet inside her as she clung to him that it was almost like dying. She gave a little scream, her legs curling over his back as she held onto him, her cheeks wet with tears.
Enrique lay still for a moment and then rolled onto his side. He lay looking at her, and then kissed her tenderly on her forehead, his fingers smoothing over her cheeks.
'It was good between us.'
'Very good,' Anna said and smiled softly. Somehow all her tension, all the unhappiness she had been storing inside her had vanished. She felt wonderful, confident, happy – and she felt young again. Enrique was right. Being loved made a woman young whatever her age. 'Thank you, that was wonderful.'
'I thank you, Anna,' he said and brushed his thumb over her bottom lip. 'You have given me so much – not just today but since we met. Working here has taken away the grief.'
'Yes, I know what you mean,' Anna said, because she understood perfectly. They both of them had cause for grief, but working together, loving each other had taken away the heartache.
'Do you have to get back?' Anna asked. 'Is Milo alone?'
'No, he has someone with him,' Enrique said. 'I can stay for a while. I shall not be expected until much later.' The light of laughter was in his eyes. 'I think we eat now and then…perhaps we go to bed next time?'
'Yes please,' Anna said. She was sparkling now, so alive and so ready to be loved. 'What will you eat?'
'You have eggs. I shall make the omelette while you prepare the table.'
'Yes, lovely,' Anna agreed. 'I think I shall take this fire upstairs so that it warms the room. The cottage felt cold when I came in…'
'I will light the Rayburn and while it is heating…' His smile promised much. Anna laughed as she looked into his eyes. 'I'll take the fire upstairs. Perhaps we should go to bed before we eat?'
Enrique nodded. He had pulled on his shirt, but was otherwise as naked as she. Anna didn't bother to pick up her clothes as she went upstairs. She wasn't shy of her body, because it was obvious that he liked her the way she was, and that pleased her.
She heard him go to the bathroom a few minutes later, and then he came to her, stripping off his shirt as she opened the covers for him. He slipped in beside her, reaching out to pull her close. She could feel the heat of his erection, feel the desire rage inside her as she lifted her face for his kiss, already beginning to anticipate and need him again.
Of course it couldn't possibly be as good again, not so soon, she thought as she pressed herself closer, kissing him as eagerly as he kissed her. But it was, she soon discovered, as he rolled onto his back, taking her with him. She knew what he wanted and sat astride, lifting herself to come down on him very slowly, enjoying the look on his face, the way his mouth went slack with desire as she bent over him, her breasts touching his face. He reached up to capture them with his mouth, sucking at her delicately, and then she sat back, arching her body as he reached up to kiss her naval.
Anna was an abandoned goddess as she lent herself to everything that he suggested, every instinct that they felt, and all the time the pleasure was mounting, mounting until at last they reached a climax that was perhaps even better than the first.
They lay side by side for a while, and then Anna got up and went to the bathroom. She slipped on her bathrobe and went downstairs to the kitchen. It was warmer now and the heat had banished the empty feeling she had felt earlier, or perhaps that was entirely Enrique's doing, she thought, smiling to herself.
She prepared a salad and cracked the eggs ready for Enrique, who followed her down, wearing his clothes now. She poured wine for them both as she watched him whip the eggs to a froth and then pour them into the hot oil. In a few minutes they lay golden and brown on the plates she had warmed. They ate with enjoyment, smiling at each other, sipping wine from each other's glasses, feeding from each other's plates.
After the meal, Anna made coffee. It was gone ten now and she saw him glance at his watch.
'You should go now.'
'Yes, I should,' he agreed. 'I don't want to but I must. I am expected in twenty minutes.'
'Then you must go.' She shook her head as he began to clear plates to the sink. 'No, I can do that. You should go home, Enrique.'
He turned to look at her, his dark eyes moving over her face. 'You are all right now?'
'Yes, of course,' she said. 'I was being an idiot when you arrived, but I feel much better now.'
'Me too,' he said. 'I missed you, Anna.'
'I missed you too,' she said. 'Will you come tomorrow – to work I mean?'
'Yes. Everyday until the work is finished.'
'Good.' Anna laughed softly. 'Go home, Enrique. I am fine now. I promise you.'
He nodded, turned and went out. At the door he looked back for an instant, and then he was gone. Anna smiled to herself as she cleared up and then went upstairs. She was feeling so much better now, unbelievably good. She didn't believe that her problems were over, and she didn't imagine that Enrique would put her up on his white steed and ride into the sunset, but she felt valued and cared for and for the moment that was all she needed.
Anna was up early the next morning. She tidied the cottage and then had a really good look at everything. She was amazed at how much difference the new doors had made. It was a very nice property now, so much different to the cottage she had found when she first arrived. She couldn't really believe that such small improvements had made all the difference. At first she had thought it would cost a fortune to put right – and perhaps it might have if she hadn't been lucky enough to meet Enrique.
A lot of things would have been different then, Anna realized. He had made her think about her life, about what she wanted to do. She understood now that she didn't have to go along with everything Tom wanted. Her feeling of hopelessness had gone, vanished somehow. She wasn't just Tom's wife, she was Anna Hanwell and there were a hundred things she could do if she wanted.
She left a note on the table for Enrique and went shopping before he arrived. She wanted to buy some flowers from a garden centre she had noticed on her way down the previous day. She had several ideas buzzing in her head and she was feeling excited as she drove to the small garden centre.
She was pleased when she discovered that he had a good variety of cut blooms. She bought some fresh flowers and also quite a few of the silk ones, which were on special offer, because she wanted to make up more than one arrangement. She put them in the back of the car and started to drive home. If her idea worked out it would be one way of earning some money, which she might need to do if she and Tom parted.
Enrique's van was parked in the drive when she got back. She could hear him singing to himself when she went in, and the sound made her smile. He was a little tuneless at times, but she liked to hear him, because it was a happy sound.
He came down when she called him for coffee, and told her that he was finishing the tiling in the bathroom that day.
'Tomorrow I have some odd jobs and then I am finished. You are pleased with what I have done?'
'You know I am,' Anna said. 'I never expected it to look as good as it does. The shelving you did in here, the new doors and the things we bought from that barn – they all blend so well. I am not sure that I would have thought of it if you hadn't suggested it.'
'But you told me what you had in mind, and I took you to a place where you could buy what you needed. You made it happen, Anna.'
'I think a lot of it is because of you,' she said, laughing. 'We did it together – shall we settle for that?'
'I like that,' he said, his eyes caressing her. 'You look beautiful, my Anna.'
'You did that too,' she said and arched her brows at him. 'I feel good this morning, and that is why I look good.'
'You always look good to me,' he told her. 'Now I go back to work – but what will you do?' He looked at the flowers and the baskets she put on the counters and the table. 'So many flowers.'
'Not all for me,' Anna said. 'I am going to take the silk ones to the shop where I found your card when I've made them up into arrangements. I shall ask the owner if she will sell some of them for me, and I shall put a card in her window to say that I will make up fresh flowers by order.'
'This is a good idea,' Enrique said. 'You will earn some money and it will give you a job, no?'
'Yes, I am hoping so,' Anna said. 'It won't be enough so I shall have to look for something else – but it will help.'
'I leave you alone to work,' Enrique said. 'Milo is looking forward to seeing you this afternoon.'
Anna glanced towards the window. 'If it stays fine I shall take him to feed the ducks.'
Enrique nodded and went out. Anna began work on her flower arrangements. She selected the colours that went together into little piles, and then stuffed three basket with a special kind of material to hold the flowers in place. She needed to cut the stems of the silk flowers, and was glad that she had thought to bring her strong pliers with her. She couldn't have cut through the plastic covered wire without them.
Anna did all her preparation first, because she had learned that it was best that way when she worked in the shop. Once everything was ready, it took hardly any time to make the three pretty arrangements. She had decided to limit herself to three this first time, because she didn't want to overwhelm the owner of the little shop. There wasn't much room and she probably wouldn't sell very many. It was from the card that she intended to place on the wall that Anna hoped to attract inquiries.
She was also intending to see if she could find a few hours helping out at one of the many pubs or small restaurants in the district. She had decided that she didn't want to go into business for herself again, because Tom was right. To make a small shop pay she would have to work all hours, and she would prefer more time to herself. No, it would suit her to go out for a few hours a week, and also to do her flower arranging if she could find a little trade.
She worked steadily for the next couple of hours. She was admiring her handiwork when Enrique came down. He looked at what she had done and nodded his approval.
'These will sell I think,' he said. 'They last so much longer than the fresh flowers. What will you charge?'
'I shall ask fifteen pounds for that one, twenty each for the other two. I shall pay ten percent commission or perhaps twelve.'
'Stick to ten,' Enrique said. 'You have all the work, all she has to do is take the money.'
'Yes, perhaps. I shall see what she says. I'm going to take them while you fetch Milo.'
'She will jump at them,' Enrique said and grinned. 'They will sell quickly. You will see.'
Anna thanked him for his encouragement and carried the three baskets out to the car. It took only a few minutes to reach the shop, where she found her friendly owner serving a customer. The woman looked at the baskets as Anna carried them in, exclaiming how pretty they were.
'Did you make them?' the customer asked.
'Yes, I am hoping to sell them here,' Anna replied and was promptly asked how much the larger ones were. 'Twenty pounds each for these two – and fifteen for the smaller one.'
'Oh, I should like the one with yellow flowers,' the woman said. 'Can I pay for it now?'
'Pay with your bill,' Anna said, handing her the basket. She waited until the customer left and then smiled at the woman behind the counter. 'You just made one pound and fifty pence on that sale – if you are satisfied?'
'Why not?' the woman said and gave her a friendly smile. 'We keep meeting. You might as well call me Nellie.'
'I'm Anna. I was hoping you might put these somewhere in your shop and sell them for me – ten percent commission?'
'Well, I'll try, Anna,' Nellie said and smiled. 'I don't know as they will go as quickly as that one, but we'll have a go. You will have to leave me your phone number so I can ring you if they sell.'
'I was hoping to leave a card on your wall. I can make up fresh flowers to order if people telephone me.'
'Of course you can. I charge ten pounds a month.' Nellie handed over three pounds and fifty pence. 'That's soon got rid of your profit, hasn't it – but never mind you may get a call soon, and I might sell these baskets for you.'
'Thank you,' Anna said, pocketing the change. 'Just ring me if you sell out, though I don't expect you will just like that.'
She left the two baskets on the counter and pinned her card to the wall, turning to wave goodbye as she reached the door. She was feeling pleased with her first sale as she drove back to the cottage, but she didn't expect that it would happen like that very often. She had simply been lucky. At least the profit she had made had helped to pay for her putting her card on the wall.
She made a sandwich for lunch and drank some coffee. Enrique came back with Milo, who ran to her and hugged her. They all talked for a few minutes, and then Enrique went back to work.
Anna collected some bread from the fridge and led Milo outside. It was fine for the moment but she rather thought it might rain soon and she wanted to make the most of the afternoon.
Milo was happy enough, skipping ahead of her, and Anna wondered whether she would be able to care for a young child full time. She knew it wouldn’t be easy, and she sighed, because life wasn't as simple as she would like it to be. She loved Milo, but to be Mum to a small boy took energy, and commitment. Anna had other commitments. She would have to spend some time with Susie whatever else she did – and she wasn't sure what Enrique would think about that side of her life.
He hadn't mentioned a future for them. Anna didn't know if there could be anything more than they already had. He hadn't spoken of the future at all, but she imagined he would marry again one day – or at least want a live in partner. He was managing for the moment, but he really needed a mother for Milo. Their lovemaking had been wonderful coming as it did when she was at a low ebb, but she wasn't sure that living together would work. She was still tied to the past, to her children and perhaps Tom too.
Anna put the bothersome thought from her mind. She was happy for the moment and she wasn't going to let anything spoil that if she could help it.
Anna made cheesy eggs on toast for tea that evening, and was amused to see that Milo covered his in tomato sauce, even though she had flavoured them with a dash of Worcester sauce in the pan.
'Robbie always used to do that when he was small,' she said, her eyes meeting Enrique's in shared laughter. 'He has grown out of it now though, and he prefers an Indian takeaway or pizza these days.'
Enrique offered to help with the washing up but she waved him away. He lowered his voice, as he sent Milo running out to the car.
'May I come tonight?'
She knew what he was asking, and she nodded, her throat catching with anticipation, desire threading through her like a hot wire.
'About eight,' he murmured and then he was gone.
Anna washed up and then arranged two more baskets of silk flowers. She had almost exhausted the supply she had bought, though she still had quite a few at home and the telephone number of the wholesaler was keyed into her phone book menu. She knew her arrangements were competitive with shop prices, but that still didn't mean that they would sell, though she might be lucky when the summer visitors were about.
When she had finished, she went upstairs and took a bath, dressing in a loose house robe that made her feel relaxed and sexy, and then sat down to wait for Enrique to arrive, sipping a glass of her favourite white wine. Eight o'clock came and went and there was no sign of him. Anna didn't take much notice, but the minutes clicked steadily on and by nine thirty he still hadn't shown. It was a few minutes past ten that her phone rang and she saw that it was Enrique.
'I'm sorry, Anna,' he said. 'My baby sitter didn't arrive and Milo was sick so I couldn't ask anyone else to come in. He has been up and down all night, and I've only just settled him.'
'I'm sorry,' Anna said. 'Do you think the eggs upset him at tea?'
'No, I think it must have been a bug he caught at nursery school. I've been told several children in his class have gone down with it.'
'Poor little thing,' Anna said. 'Is there anything I can do?'
'I rang the doctor and he said it was just a matter of keeping him in bed and giving him plenty to drink but nothing to eat for a day or so. It means that I shan't be able to come for a couple of days, but as soon as he is fit to go back to his playgroup I shall finish the work.'
'Thank you,' Anna said. 'It makes things awkward for you, Enrique. You need someone to look after him when you are at work, someone who will love and care for him.'
'Yes, I know. You have been very good with him, Anna, but it is not always so where I find work. Sometimes I can only work in the mornings, and sometimes he has to sit in the van and wait for me a long time. I am aware that I have to make changes. My family wants me to go back to Spain. My mother would help to look after him then, though she is also busy. She cooks in the hotel in the mornings, though my father is the main chef. It was what I was supposed to do, but I wanted a different kind of life.'
'But now you think it might be better for Milo?'
'He is becoming very English. I think he should learn Spanish and his own culture. Yes, I think I shall have to go soon, Anna.'
'I see…' Anna knew what he was telling her, because she didn't fit into the kind of life he was planning. In Spain he would be in the loving embrace of his family, and it was doubtful if they would welcome a live in partner who was several years older – even if she and Enrique had wanted that themselves. 'Well, you must do what you think best for him, and for you too, Enrique. I shall see you again?'
'Do you think I would leave without seeing you again?'
'No…' She laughed softly. 'That was just me being anxious because I am going to miss you.'
'I am missing you now, my Anna.' His voice was low and husky and it made her stomach curl with desire.
Anna carried that with her as she went to bed, smiling as she drifted into sleep. Her dreams were pleasant, but when she woke in the morning they vanished like summer mist.
In the morning Anna had a call from Nellie to tell her that both arrangements had been bought by one customer, who was interested in taking more.
'She has a small hotel locally,' Nellie said. 'I think she has been having fresh flowers from a supplier who has let her down a couple of times so she is going to have silk arrangements throughout. I told her you would pop along and see her, Anna. And don't bother about commission on this one for me. I will take one or two more for the shop, but this is your project not mine.'
Anna thanked her. She rang the number Nellie had given her and had a few words with Mrs Trent, the owner of the Paradise Hotel.
'Oh yes, I've got one of your arrangements standing in front of me,' Mrs Trent said. 'I need about twenty-five in all, fifteen this size for the guest rooms and ten larger ones for the public rooms. Could you give me an estimate of what that might be?'
'I will make up a few samples and call this afternoon – about three if that would be convenient?'
'Yes, that would fine. I shall look forward to seeing you then, Anna. Forgive me, but I don't know your other name.'
'Its Hanwell. Thank you. I shall see you this afternoon.'
Anna looked at her supply of flowers, knowing that she didn't have enough, which meant a trip to the garden centre. She hoped that she would be able to get more of the ones she liked, even if the sale had finished. However, when she got there she discovered that the price had been lowered even more, because they wanted to clear their stock.
'We've decided not to bother with the artificial side of it,' the owner told her. 'If you want to give me fifty pounds you can clear the lot.'
It was a terrific bargain for her, cheaper than she could have got them from the wholesaler, so Anna paid him, carrying them out in armfuls to the car. She also bought some baskets and a couple of nice pottery bowls, which would look wonderful in the middle of a table.
She went home and spent the morning making up the various baskets and one of the bowls. She had achieved five arrangements in all, for which she intended to charge twenty pounds each. She carried them carefully outside, loading them into the car and feeling pleased with herself. She was doing what she loved doing, and she might find more outlets if she tried.
Anna drove to the Paradise Hotel, which was the other side of Downton, and carried two of her baskets into the foyer. Mrs Trent was a woman of about Anna's own age. She smiled and shook hands as they met. Anna explained that she had three more in the car and was invited to bring them in, which she did, setting them out on the reception desk.
'They are lovely,' Mrs Trent said. 'I have resisted going for silk until now, because I love fresh flowers but I don't like them when they start to drop the next day.'
'No, that is unfortunate,' Anna agreed. 'We always used the very freshest flowers for arrangements, and there are ways of treating the stems – but you can't go wrong with silk. All they need is a little dusting to keep them nice, and they will last for ages, though it is nice to change them round now and then.'
'At your prices I can change them every so often,' Mrs Trent said. 'Well, I shall take all these and perhaps you can make me some more?'
'Yes, of course. You spoke of some larger arrangements. Do you perhaps have any favourite vases you would like me to use?'
'Well, there are two Chinese vases that stand in the dining room. You might like to see them and then you can choose the right things for it?'
'Yes, of course,' Anna said. She went into the dining room and looked at the impressive vases. She thought that perhaps she didn't have anything quite important enough to do these particular vases justice, but she knew where she could get exactly the right flowers. She returned to the desk and told Mrs Trent about some tall lilies she thought might look good in her vases. 'They will be more expensive, I'm afraid.'
'Yes, I should imagine so. What do you think it will cost?'
'About fifty pounds for each vase, but it depends how soon you want them. If you can wait for a week or ten days I can buy them wholesale and that will be cheaper for you.'
'And you will make up the other arrangements now?'
'You can have them by the end of the week,' Anna promised.
'Could I have another of those bowls? I particularly like this one. I think I shall take it to my office.'
Anna smiled, accepting the cheque Mrs Trent offered for the first delivery. She was pleased with her day and felt that she was beginning to make a life for herself, and yet when she sat eating her meal that evening she couldn't help wishing that she had someone to share it.
Susie rang her that evening. She talked about Jack and her day at the hairdressing salon, how much she was learning and enjoying herself, and then she got round to what was on her mind.
'When are you coming home, Mum?'
'I don't know,' Anna told her. 'I shall probably pop back soon to pick up some things, and I'll see you then, but I'm not sure that I am coming home to stay. I know that isn't what you want to hear, Susie, and of course I shall visit you. I shall try to be there when you need me. We can go shopping together sometimes, but we can talk on the phone as often as you like.'
'Dad told me he thought you were going to leave him. I said you wouldn't but it looks as if he was right.' There was accusation in her voice.
'I'm not sure that Tom wants me to go back,' Anna said. 'We argue all the time and he has his own plans for the future.'
'He says you are the one who wants a divorce.'
'That isn't entirely true. I'm not sure what I want, but I can't go on the way we have been. I need a life too you know.'
'Yes…' Susie sounded a bit odd. 'Jack told me off when I kept moaning because you weren't around when I needed you. He says you are entitled to be happy, and that if it made you happy to be down there I would have to accept it. He says we can visit sometimes – that's if you want us to?'
'Of course I do, Susie. Look, I am trying to find my way at the moment. I think I can make a go of it here, but I miss you and Robbie – and I miss your father too. We've been married a long time and you don't just walk away from someone that easily. It's difficult to make a decision about something that important, and I need a little time to myself.'
'Dad is pretty miserable.'
'Is he?' Anna felt an unexpected tightness in her chest.
'He told me it was his fault. He was the one who had an affair. You didn't tell me that, Mum.'
'It isn't all Tom's fault,' Anna said feeling a pang of guilt. 'Look, darling, sometimes people change, grow apart. Your father wants to retire and sell the house, move into something smaller so that he can afford to travel more. I wouldn't mind that so much, if I understood why…' She broke off because it was impossible to explain to her daughter that she had felt old, tired and unloved. Enrique had made her feel wanted again, desired, and she didn't want to lose that feeling, even though she knew that her relationship with him would be only a brief affair. 'Give me a little time. I do miss you and perhaps I shall come back, but not just yet, all right?'
'All right…' Susie hesitated. 'I'm sorry if I've been selfish and thoughtless. I know you loved the shop and if it was because of what I said that day…'
'It wasn't,' Anna assured her, even though Susie had played her part. 'Your father was right about that: it is too hard to make a living from a small business. As a matter of fact I've sold eight silk flower arrangements in the past two days. I have a contract to do several more for a hotel, and I might look for a few hours work at a hotel cooking or reception work.'
'Couldn't you do that here?' Susie asked, and then, 'Sorry, Mum. I'm pushing again, but you could find work here, couldn't you?'
'Yes, I imagine I might,' Anna agreed. 'But the cottage is lovely and…' She sighed. 'Give me some space, Susie.'
'Yes, all right. Ring me soon, Mum.'
'Yes, I will. I should have done it earlier, but I've been busy.'
Anna ended the call and went to run her bath. Susie had touched a raw nerve and some of her doubts had returned.
Anna worked on the orders Mrs Trent had given her for the next three days. Enrique phoned her a couple of times but he didn't come to the cottage and she missed him. But she was beginning to get used to being alone. It wasn't really that much different to all the times Tom had been away or working late, and she was starting to make friends.
She had taken Nellie three more baskets of silk flowers and spent some time talking to her, and she had met an elderly lady while out walking on the river bank. Mrs Jackson had a poodle she liked to walk and they had met several times, now they were stopping to chat for a few minutes each time. Mrs Jackson had told Anna about the evening classes she attended, and mentioned that they were looking for someone to teach flower arranging that winter.
Anna was tempted. She looked up the telephone number of the college when she got back to the cottage, because a small evening job might suit her, but something held her back and she didn't make the call. Instead she finished making up the various baskets Mrs Trent had ordered, and when a large flat brown box arrived special delivery the next morning, she opened it to find the lilies and other tall blooms she had ordered.
She took everything along to the hotel, spending the morning arranging the tall blooms in the Chinese vases to her satisfaction and Mrs Trent's delight.
'I have a friend who would like to order some arrangements,' she told Anna. I've given her your phone number if that is all right?'
'Yes, of course, thank you.'
Anna accepted the cheque and stayed to have coffee with Mrs Trent. She asked her if she knew of a small hotel where she might get a few hours a week cooking or helping in reception, and was given a couple of possible ideas.
Anna went home and made herself a sandwich before ringing the telephone numbers she had been given. The pub told her that they had filled their position, but the small teashop said that they were looking for someone who could cook old-fashioned cakes and pastries.
'I love making cakes,' Anna told the woman, who sounded friendly and just the kind of person she would enjoy working for. 'Shall I bake a few this evening and bring them along tomorrow morning?'
'That would be lovely,' the woman said. 'My name is Esther. We are only a small place, Anna, but we have a lot of customers and we can't keep up by ourselves anymore. If you wanted to bake at home, deliver and then help out serving for an hour or so sometimes it would be great.'
And that sounded exactly what she needed, Anna thought as she ended the call. She was really pleased with the way things were going. Between her flower arranging and the cake baking, she would be too busy to sit and brood about being alone. But she decided to make another call too, one that might help her decide what she was going to do with her life.
The estate agent was pleased with the call and told her he would come that afternoon. He said that he had been hoping she might ring him, because it was the kind of property he was looking for.
'I am not certain I want to sell,' Anna told him, trying to be fair. 'But if you could give me a valuation it might help me to decide.'
'Expect me at three.'
He was prompt and came armed with his clipboard and a small electronic gadget that he pointed at walls to get the size of the rooms accurate. They spent some time outside and Anna told him what had caused the damp, and he nodded approvingly. Then they went inside and she took him on a tour of the house. He was impressed with all that she had done, and the estimate of a possible selling price was considerably more than Anna had imagined.
'I shan't ask to take pictures this time,' he said, 'but let me know what you decide and I'll come back.'
'Thank you,' Anna said. 'And thank you for coming so promptly. If I do decide to sell I shall be in touch soon.'
She sat down and thought about it after he had gone. It seemed that she might have more options open to her than she had imagined.
She phoned Susie that evening, telling her about her day, but not about the estate agent's visit, and encouraging her daughter who was just learning to shampoo and rinse the permanent waves for the shop's customers.
'It seems as if we are both having fun,' she said. 'I've been baking sponges and seed cake, old-fashioned ginger cake and almond macaroons. I'm taking them to the tea shop in the morning, and then we'll see what happens.'
'You are making me hungry,' Susie said. 'I wish I had asked you to teach me to cook sooner, Mum. I'm not much good at cakes, and Jack hates shop things; he says they are always stale.'
'I'll bring you some of my recipes when I come back,' Anna promised. 'I'm busy this week, but I may see you next week, love.'
She was feeling happy as she ended the call and went to bed. Her days were filled now and she didn't have time to brood or think about the future.
Anna delivered her cakes to the teashop on the Saturday morning. She refused the offer of payment, saying that they must try the produce first and then come to some arrangement. Esther was friendly, a few years older than Anna, a little plump but with a lovely smile. It would be a pleasure to work with her, Anna thought as she left the shop and drove to the supermarket. She was running low on supplies and needed to restock her fridge.
As she left the store and began to load the back of her car, Anna saw Enrique and Milo walking across the forefront of the Supermarket and was about to wave to them when she saw that they were not alone. A very pretty dark haired girl was with them. She was walking a little behind them, but then she caught up to them, bending down to talk to Milo and then glancing up at Enrique. He smiled at her, his look a caress, and Anna's stomach clenched, because she knew there was more than friendship between them.
The girl was so young, not much more than twenty, Anna judged. Slender, very pretty with her dark curling hair and almost black eyes, her body language told Anna that she not only loved Enrique's son, she was in love with him. It was obvious from her smile, from the way she handed him the groceries to put into the van, laughing at something he said, and from the tilt of her head.
They looked very much a family, Anna thought, feeling a pang of regret, because she knew it was so right. She could never fit into his life the way that young girl did, Anna knew it, understood it, and smiled as she acknowledged that she had always expected it. It was what Enrique and Milo needed: the girl would be a mother and a wife, a partner in whatever Enrique decided to do with his life in a way that Anna never could. For a moment the regret and disappointment swirled inside her, but she conquered it almost at once.
She knew that her feelings for Enrique were more than just friendship, but she had never expected commitment from him. He was loving and generous by nature, and he had given her so much. She would be ungrateful indeed to grudge him the happiness this girl could give him and Milo.
Anna spent the rest of the day cleaning and cooking, because it was better to keep busy, not to give herself time to think of what might have been. It was seven o'clock when Beth rang her.
'We're going to book a mini break to Spain next month,' she told Anna. 'It's an inspection tour so we shall be looking at a few apartments and perhaps a villa.'
'You must be excited,' Anna said, because obviously Beth was feeling much better if she was ready to book a holiday.
'Well, Gerry is anyway,' Beth told her wryly. 'I want to be here for Julie but she will be all right once the baby is born – should be anytime now.'
'How does she feel?'
'Impatient to get it over,' Beth said. 'You know what it is like in the last few days. She says she feels like a beached whale.'
Anna laughed. 'I know that feeling well,' she said. 'Give her my love and tell her I shall be thinking of her.'
'Yes, of course – and what having you been doing?'
Anna told her all about the flower arranging and the cooking. Beth listened in silence, and then told her that she had seen Tom in town earlier that day.
'He was shopping, the poor love,' Beth said. 'He looked pretty fed up. I don't think he enjoys looking after himself, Anna. You've spoiled him.'
'No, I don't suppose he does. He has only ever been to the supermarket with me a couple of times, and that was when I was having the children.'
'Are you really going to leave him?'
'I don't know,' Anna said honestly. 'He hasn't bothered to ring me since I left.'
'Perhaps he feels it would be a waste of time. He thinks you want a divorce.'
'Susie said the same,' Anna said, feeling thoughtful. 'Perhaps I did when I walked out.'
'Are you having second thoughts?'
'It isn't easy to know what I want,' Anna said. 'I could make a life here, I know I could – but Susie wants me back there.'
'I should prefer it,' Beth said, 'but that's me being selfish, because I shan't always be here in the future. Especially if Gerry buys that villa with a swimming pool.'
'That sounds lovely,' Anna said. 'Well, I must go. The doorbell is ringing.'
'Bye then. Ring me soon.'
'Yes, of course.' Anna switched off and went to answer the door. It was Enrique. She smiled at him and invited him in. 'Did you forget your key?'
'No, but I thought perhaps I should ring the bell?'
'Have you come to give me the bill?'
'No. I have come to ask if I can finish tomorrow afternoon. It is Sunday. I was not sure if you would want…'
'Of course you can come when you like,' she said. 'It is just a few tiles in the bathroom, isn't it?'
'And two door handles,' Enrique told her, his dark eyes serious as he looked at her.
'Is Milo better now?'
'It was just a little stomach upset, but he is not well enough to go swimming this week.'
'And it worried you,' Anna said as she led the way into the kitchen. 'I was just about to make some coffee – would you like one?'
'Thank you, if you wish me to stay?'
'Why shouldn't I?'
'You saw me with Isabella today,' Enrique said. 'It is why I came tonight, Anna. You know that she is more than a friend, don't you?'
'She is in love with you, Enrique. I saw that and I think she loves Milo. She will be good for both of you.'
'We are to marry. She was so good to Milo and he cried for her when she left. It hurt me to see him so ill and I could not leave him. I did not know how to comfort him, a woman knows these things. He needs a mother to care for him, Anna.' He hesitated, then, 'I thought Isabella was too young, that it wouldn't be fair to marry her and expect her to take care of someone else's child – but she was so loving and kind to Milo when he was ill. And we all care for each other.'
'Yes, I could see that this morning. I am glad for you – for all of you. I really am, Enrique. Don't feel you have to explain. You don't. What happened between us was…special for me, but I didn't expect it to be more than a lovely interlude. I'm older than you and it wouldn't work. You need something different – someone to be a mother and a partner in life. I have commitments that would take me away too often, even if we had been in love.'
'I knew that you would say this,' Enrique told her and his smile was warm, embracing. 'It was not simply an interlude for me, Anna. I love you very much, and I wanted to make love to you from the moment I saw you – but you are right, it would not work for us.'
'You need Isabella and she loves you.'
'Yes, and I care for her. It is a different kind of loving, Anna. You have given me something I shall never forget. Even when I am old I shall remember our time together. No one will ever be like you. If we had been free…'
'Yes, I know,' Anna said. 'I would willingly have come with you if we had only ourselves to consider, but we have other lives, other loves.'
'But we shall not forget this love?' Enrique moved towards her, bending his head to touch his lips to her. It was a soft kiss, gentle and sweet, a kiss of farewell. 'You will remember me with happiness in your heart, my Anna?'
'Yes, I shall,' she said. 'When do you go to Spain?'
'In another three weeks.'
'Then I wish you all the happiness in the world,' Anna said. She turned away, fighting the surge of emotion that caught at her, because there was a side of her that did not want to be sensible and generous, a side that wanted Enrique here with her. But the moment passed and she told him about the past few days, her success and her tentative plans for the future.
'But what of your family?' Enrique asked. 'I think that you still have room for Tom in your heart. Be sure that it is over before you cut the strings that bind you, Anna.'
'Yes, I shall,' she said. 'I think you should go now. I shall see you in the morning. Don't forget to bring me the bill.'
Anna spent the morning cooking. She was making a casserole and she enjoyed her work. She heard Enrique singing to himself and she smiled, trying not to feel regret that this was the last time he would come to the cottage to work. It was perhaps the last time she would see him.
He had laid his bill on the kitchen table in an envelope. It was for just under four thousand pounds, and she knew that she was very lucky to have had so much done for such a reasonable price. Most builders would have charged her double. Enrique had given her all the materials at cost price, and she doubted that he had charged for all his hours. She wrote him a cheque and put it inside the envelope for when he came down.
Her kitchen table was filled with baking when he finished work. He washed his hands at the sink, dried them and picked up the envelope, putting it into his pocket of his jeans without looking.
'It smells wonderful in here,' he said. 'My mother is a good cook, but Isabella must learn. She does not know how.'
'Your mother will teach her,' Anna said and smiled. She held out her hand a little shyly. 'Goodbye, Enrique, and be happy.'
'You too,' he said taking her hand for a moment, and then he turned it up to kiss the palm, folding her fingers over. 'Keep that to remember me by.'
Anna laughed but did not answer as he went out. She did not need anything to remember him by, she thought as she looked round the cottage. He was in her head, in her heart, and she would treasure the time they had spent together – but it was over. She knew that she would not see him again. Nor did she need to. Somehow he had given her back herself, her confidence, her pleasure in being a woman.
As he drove away in his van, her mobile rang. She answered it, delighted to discover that it was her son.
'How are you, Mum?'
'I'm fine, darling,' she said. 'How are you?'
'I'm all right. No need to worry, but I've decided I'm coming home – in another two weeks.'
'Have you run out of money? You inheritance is here if…'
'No, it isn't that, Mum.'
'Something bothering you?'
'I've seen so much suffering, Mum….little children living in poverty on the streets, young girls with terrible diseases because of the life they lead. I can do more good if I come home and finish my course. I shall probably come back once I qualify – here or somewhere else that I can do some good.'
'Oh, Robbie,' Anna said, her throat catching. 'My darling…I don't know what to say to you. I love you so much.'
'I love you, Mum. I've been so lucky. You and Dad have given me so much…I need to give back to those who need it, who haven't had all my advantages.'
'You will, my darling,' she said because the emotion was choking her. 'I know that you will. Wherever you spend your working life, because doctors are needed everywhere, Robbie – but you will do something to be proud of, because I know you.'
'It will be because of you if I do, Mum. I'll see you in a couple of weeks.'
'Yes, my love.' Anna said as he ended the call. She was so overcome that she had to sit down for a while and cry. She just couldn't help herself. Why had she ever imagined that her life was useless or that she was unloved? She must be one of the luckiest women alive.
Blowing her nose and repairing the damage done by her tears, she got up with a new determination. Life was there for the taking. It was up to everyone to make the most of what they had.
She loaded most of the stuff she had baked into her car and drove to the little teashop. Esther was delighted to see her.
'I was afraid you wouldn't come back,' she said. 'Your cakes were popular. I should really like you to join us, if you can.'
'May I let you know for certain next week?' Anna asked. 'I have something I must do first.'
She was thoughtful as she drove back to the cottage. She was becoming more and more certain that she could make a life for herself here – and she would have plenty of time to visit her daughter and Robbie – but she had to settle things with Tom first. She thought that she would ring him when she got in, because it was time they talked.
As she drew up outside the cottage she saw a car parked in her driveway, and her heart started to race as she recognised it. Tom had finally decided to come to her. In that moment she realized it was what she had been waiting for, ever since she ran away.
She got out of her car, locked it and walked towards his as he opened the door and looked at her tentatively.
'Have you been waiting long?'
'No, just ten minutes or so,' Tom told her. 'I should have rung you, let you know I was coming down. I started out last night, but then I stopped for a few hours, had a meal and a rest. I expected you would be here – but I shouldn't have taken that for granted.'
'It doesn't matter,' Anna said. 'Come in and have a look round. It is all finished. Enrique did the last little jobs this morning before I went out.'
'Oh…so he isn't coming back?'
'No, it is really done now. It should have been finished a couple of days ago but his son was ill and he couldn't manage to get here.'
'Is the boy better now?'
'Yes. They are all going to Spain soon.'
'All?' Tom looked at her uncertainly.
'Enrique is going to marry again soon.'
'Oh, I see. I thought…' Tom clamped down on whatever he had been going to say as she led the way into the kitchen. For a moment he was surprised and didn't know what to say, but as he looked round he began to smile. 'Yes, I see what you mean, Anna. Whoever did this was good at his work. It all blends together so well.'
'Do you like it?'
'Yes. Yes, I do. It is very different to what we have at home, but it has charm and character. It feels comfortable – alive.'
'Yes, that is what we thought,' Anna agreed and felt pleased that he had seen what she had tried to achieve. 'It was a lot cheaper than the kitchen you put in for me, Tom – but it wouldn't suit your house.'
'Our house,' Tom said. 'It is half yours. You know that, don't you?'
'Well, I suppose so,' Anna said. 'I wouldn't ask for that much if…' she broke off as she saw his eyes darken. 'Would you like coffee?'
'Could we have tea? Coffee doesn't suit me these days, unless it is decaffeinated?'
'That's new,' she said, lifting her brows. 'Why the change? You always loved proper coffee.'
'I still do but I've been advised not to drink it,' Tom said. 'I'm on a sort of diet, Anna. There are certain things I ought to avoid and strong coffee is one of them.'
'Tea is fine by me,' she said, and looked at him hard. 'You look a bit weary. Is something the matter, Tom?'
'You mean apart from missing you and hating coming home to an empty house?'
'It's more than that, isn't it?' Anna was thoughtful. She had been upset when he sprang it on her that he wanted to retire and sell their house, but she had had plenty of time to think about it and to wonder. 'What is really on your mind, Tom? I thought perhaps you might prefer a divorce? After all, you're not much interested in being together anymore, are you?'
'There are reasons,' Tom said and sat down at the kitchen table. I know you have cause for complaint, Anna. I've worked too long hours and too hard, but I wanted to give you and the kids the things you needed – like that expensive kitchen.'
'I picked it out,' Anna said, 'but to be honest I never expected you to say we could have it. Something less expensive would have done – and if you'd told me you were having money problems I could have spent less on things.'
'I wasn't then,' Tom said. 'It was only when we had some trouble with that drug overstock, and then I started to think about retiring…'
'I would have been delighted to hear you were cutting back on your hours,' Anna said. 'But why do you want to retire, Tom? It isn't like you.'
'I've been waiting for the results of some tests I had done the other week,' Tom said. 'I've been feeling pretty rotten for a while, Anna – several months actually. Not a normal tiredness, but sick and exhausted, and I finally decided to get myself checked out at a clinic.'
'Why didn't you tell me?' Anna thought of the times when he had left the lawn to her, when he had gone to bed and fallen asleep before saying goodnight. 'Is that why you didn't want to make love?'
'A part of it,' Tom said and looked uncomfortable. 'After the affair I felt guilty, and I couldn't. I wanted to but I kept thinking of what you would say if you knew, and so I avoided touching you. I'm so sorry about that. I wish it had never happened.'
'It doesn't matter,' Anna said. 'I expect it was just one of those things – a special interlude.'
'There wasn't much special about it,' Tom said and looked revolted. 'It was sordid and a waste of time as far as I'm concerned. She wasn't you, Anna, and you are the only woman I have ever loved.'
'Then why…' She shook her head. 'No, it doesn't matter. It's over, water under the bridge. Let's forget about it, shall we? Tell me what is wrong with you, Tom.'
'It seems that my heart is tired,' Tom said. 'It has been working too hard and it needs rest and sympathy.' He gave her a crooked smile. 'That's how the doctor explained it, but it has something to do with narrowing of the arteries, hence the diet.'
'That is my fault for feeding you too many chips.'
'No, it is my own for snatching at greasy takeaways when I'm working,' Tom said. 'The chips you cook for us wouldn't have done it on their own. I've been told that I've caught things in time. If I cut down on work, eat more salads and less greasy food, and stop smoking, I shall get better – stop the rot as it were.'
'You hardly ever smoke.'
'Not in the house, but too much in the office and on the road,' Tom admitted. 'I've been under such pressure these past few months that I needed them. I had got up to thirty a day.'
'That's far too many,' Anna said. 'I had no idea…'
'My fault,' he said. 'At home I tried to go without. I know you hate smoking in the house, and it isn't good around children.' He pulled a face. 'I always use gargle before coming to bed, because I didn't want you to know.'
'Tom! You shouldn't,' she said. 'You have to stop and really give it up this time – that's if you don't want to die early.'
'I haven't cared much recently,' he said, 'but it pulled me up with a jolt when they told me it was either stick to a diet and take it easy or have a heart attack within months.'
'You should have told me.'
'I wasn't sure you would care? Sometimes you've seemed so distant. Especially since I made you give up the shop.'
'If you had explained…'
'I wasn't sure what was going on,' Tom said. 'I knew I felt rotten but I didn't know it was serious. Not until I had those tests – the weekend you stayed down here. I had to stay in the clinic a day longer than I'd expected and I didn't want to tell you until I knew the results. Then I tried to talk to you, but then, when I came home, you were upset over losing the house and we quarrelled – and then you left me. I thought you wanted a divorce.'
'I have thought about it,' Anna said. 'I'm not sure…' She stopped as Tom's face creased and suddenly he was crying, sobbing helplessly. It struck her to the heart, because she had never seen Tom cry, not even when his father died of a stroke at the age of fifty nine. Suddenly she knew that her love for him was still there, buried under mountains of small hurts but still alive. 'No, don't, Tom. Please don't cry. I never meant to hurt you like this…'
'I'm the one who hurt you, over and over again,' Tom said. 'I had that stupid affair. I bought the kitchen you wanted because I wanted to make it up to you, but it didn't stop me feeling guilty. You were always at the shop, and I had to work harder and harder, and we were drifting apart…but I can't stand being in that house without you, Anna. It is like an empty barn…'
'Oh, Tom…' Anna's throat was tight and she felt her eyes sting with tears. The love she had thought was dead and gone welled up inside her as she moved towards him, putting her arms about him, laying her head against his chest. 'Please don't make yourself ill over this. I didn't mean that I was going to ask for a divorce.'
Tom's arms tightened around her and for some minutes they just stood there in silence, until Anna moved away. She poured tea for them both, though she could have done with something stronger.
'If you don't want a divorce then I don't either.'
'Oh, God,' Tom said and sat down again suddenly, as if his legs had gone weak. 'I was scared to death all the way down here, thinking that you wanted out. I had convinced myself that I had driven you away, that you had found someone else.'
Anna was silent, knowing how close she had been to doing just that. She had loved Enrique, and she thought she always would but it was a different kind of love to that which she felt for Tom. She hesitated, wondering if she should tell him that she had slept with someone she could have left him for if things had been other than they were, and then she decided that it would only hurt him. There was no point in confessing something that no longer mattered. It would spoil their one chance of getting back what they had lost. Sometimes it was best to keep secrets.
'No, there is no one else,' she said, because it was true. 'So – where do we go from here? Did you find out about your pension?'
'It was much as I told you,' Tom said. 'We might manage to hang onto the house if you sold this place…or we could sell the house and live here if you wanted?'
'Would you do that?' Anna was surprised and pleased by the offer. 'All your friends are there, Tom – the golf club…'
'I can play golf anywhere. You might even learn to play and come with me,' he said, looking at her hopefully. 'You wouldn't have to stay at home on your own then.'
'I don't have to do that even if I can't play,' Anna said. 'I could come with you, stay at a nice hotel – and if I don't want to watch all the time I could go exploring.'
'You could always have done that if you had said…'
'But there were the children,' Anna reminded him. 'I couldn't come when they were little and it grew into a habit. I did come occasionally on your business trips. Until I had the shop.'
'The shop…' Tom frowned. 'I was unfair over that too. I should have helped you find the money even if it was only a loan until you got your inheritance.'
'No, you were right,' Anna said. 'I didn't think so at the beginning, but I do now. I've discovered that I can find enough work to do at home to keep me happy.' She told him about the flower arrangements she had sold and the cakes she had been baking. 'I could do a couple of hours now and then serving, but it isn't obligatory, just if I want.'
'So is that what you would rather do – stay down here?'
'I'm not sure,' Anna said and sipped her tea. 'If I can do it here, I can probably do it anywhere, Tom.'
'You want to sell this and keep the house in Cambridge?'
Anna was silent for a moment. 'I called the agent out yesterday and asked for his opinion on what I might get for the cottage,' she said. 'He reckons that it is exactly what people are looking for as a second home, because I've kept the character but ironed out the problems.'
'What did he think – about a hundred and ninety?'
Anna stood up and held out her hand to him. 'Come and have a look, Tom. See the rest of it before you pass judgement.'
He took her hand and she led him through the hall into the sitting room. He nodded his approval as he looked round, taking in the colours and the way she had given it a comfortable feeling without too much clutter.
'You always were good at this sort of thing.'
'Come and see the bathroom. The bath is great, Tom, and so comfortable.'
She led the way upstairs, taking him into the back bedroom, which was perfectly decorated but as yet unfurnished, and then into the room she had been using.'
'Yes, this is nice,' he said. 'Very different to what we have at home – but nice.'
'The agent seemed to think so. He says we could get between two hundred and twenty and two hundred and fifty thousand pounds.'
'You're joking!' Tom stared at her in disbelief. 'It doesn't make sense. They said three seventy to eighty for our house and that is much bigger.'
'Yes, but I think we ought to try a few more agents before we decide what the house is really worth, and this is a good tourist area, Tom.'
'So is Cambridge.'
'But this has so much charm, don't you think so?' she asked. 'You haven't been down to the river yet. Location is everything, Tom. That is why I didn't want a semi-detached on a housing estate – but I do have another idea.'
'Do you?' Tom looked at her and then at the bed. 'Do you think it could wait until later? It's ages since we were together like this, Anna.'
'Yes, of course it can wait,' she said and moved towards him, gazing up at him, into his eyes, warmth spreading through her as she saw the old Tom looking back at her. 'Are you sure it is all right? I mean your heart…'
'Yes, of course,' he said. 'Making love is good for you; the doctor told me not to be afraid of it…'
'Then that's all right,' Anna said and kissed him.
It was quite a while before they got around to talking about the houses again. They lay for a while after making love, just holding each other, satisfied to find the togetherness they had lost for so long. If Anna didn't quite reach the heights of sensation she had discovered with Enrique it was good enough. She was quietly content, happy as she lay with her face against Tom's shoulder, the familiar smell of him filling her senses, knowing that she was home safe again. It might not be the passion of youth or the excitement of a forbidden love, but it had its compensations. She smiled as she remembered Enrique's words. It was possible to love in different ways, to love more than one man – or woman – at the same time. And she did love Tom. She had always loved him, deep down inside the feeling had always been there – just as Enrique had told her.
It wasn't until they were back down in the kitchen eating a simple salad and some ham that Anna had bought earlier that she told him what was on her mind.
'Supposing we were to stay here for a couple of weeks and then make up our mind whether we want to live here or not?'
'Yes, we could do that. I could take the holiday that is more than overdue,' Tom said. 'I'm giving in my notice soon anyway, though I may have to work a month before I can leave, but I shan't work so many hours.' He smiled as he saw the brightness of her eyes, the mischief that had been missing for a long time. 'And what then at the end of the holiday? If we decide that we don't want to live here?'
'Well, I think we should put the Cambridge house on the market. We don't need anything as large as that, and we have this for the moment – but I think we should look for something else in the meantime. Something nearer Susie and Beth, but not too near. I would rather be in a village I think – and I would like an older house.
'I thought a property that was sound structurally but in need of a bit of TLC – that we could see as a project for both of us, Tom. We could find someone to do the building work, but I could decorate as I have here, and I could make curtains and choose furniture that suited it. Some of this stuff I've got here can go in storage, and we might give Susie some things from home. She would like her own bedroom furniture and perhaps some of the modern furniture. I think I would like traditional next time. If we are careful what we buy and we get about two hundred plus for this, we should be able to keep most of what you get for the house – and I think it will be nearer four than three and a half.'
'I shouldn't need to take my pension then. We would have enough capital to enjoy ourselves, and leave the pension until later.'
'Yes, that's it exactly,' Anna said. 'After we talked about selling the house that day, I had a look at some literature advertising village properties, because Beth and Gerry are going to move too. I saw a couple of leaflets of houses that looked nice. They were detached with decent gardens, but moderately priced because they needed some work. I have been thinking about one of them, and I might telephone the agent tomorrow and find out if it is still available.'
'You have been thinking about things.'
'Yes, well, I have had plenty of time.'
'So why are Beth and Gerry moving?'
'They want a place in Spain and a smaller house here – but I think I would prefer to be more adventurous, explore different countries, places we haven't been to before.'
'Yes, that's what I had in mind rather than going to the same place all the time. I would like to go on a safari once I'm feeling better – do you fancy it?'
'Why not?' Anna said. 'We've still got some good years ahead of us, Tom. We don't need to grow old gracefully just yet.'
'You will never be old,' he said. 'You improve with the years, Anna. Haven't I told you how beautiful you are?'
'Not lately,' she said, 'but there is no time like the present. You have my permission to say it as often as you like.' She gurgled with laughter. 'I hope you noticed that I've lost weight?'
'I noticed,' Tom said. 'It looks good, Anna – but then you always look good to me.'
Enrique had said something similar only a few days ago. Anna smiled, because she was glowing inside, and this time she knew that it was right. This was what she needed, what she had always wanted deep down inside, because Tom was her true love. She had once loved Harry Crabbe, and for a short special space of time, she had loved Enrique – but this was a different kind of loving.
'Oh, Tom,' she said. 'We have to seize this chance we've been given. We have to make the most of every day, not waste it in worrying and quarrelling and working too hard. We can do anything we want now. It is up to us to enjoy our lives.'
'You're wonderful,' Tom said and moved towards her, pulling her to her feet and into his arms. 'I've been feeling so old – as if all the best had gone and there was nothing to look forward to anymore, but you've changed all that, you've made me see that we can start again. We can have it all, my darling.'
'Yes,' Anna said. 'We can have it all…'
She smiled as she went into his arms.A