Authors: Catherine George
want to know if I'm pregnant, and I'm forced
own up that
Rufus received the news with a moment or two of silence. "Strange, isn't it?" he said at last. "I tried for two years to father a child with Claire and failed—"
"But just one encounter with me and bingo!" said Jo bitterly.
Rufus took her hands. "So let's discuss what happens next."
She frowned. "What do you mean? Nothing happens next. Not until May of next year."
His grasp tightened. "You obviously haven't thought this through. Look, Jo. . .all I can do is try to put things right—"
"Don't dare offer me money," she interrupted fiercely.
"I'm offering something quite different. As I said before, I would very much like a child. And I would prefer that child to have a father married to his mother. Are you with me so far, Jo?"
Pennington, my favorite location, is my own creation. Having lived in the past near two attractive towns in the heart of England, I combine the best features of both, not least the picturesque buildings from olden times. My fictional town has wide streets, quaint tearooms and public gardens ablaze with flowers; there are irresistible shops with elegant clothes and
, while others are filled with bargains in antique furniture and porcelain. Surrounded by lush countryside, Pennington is full of charm—a place where dreams come true.
P. S. Look out for more stories from Pennington in Harlequin Romance!
THE SECOND BRIDE
First North American Publication 1997.
Copyright © 1997 by Catherine George.
All rights reserved. Except for use in any review, the reproduction or utilization of this work In whole or in part in any form by any electronic, mechanical or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including xerography, photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, is forbidden without the written permission of the publisher, Harlequin Enterprises Limited, 225 Duncan Mill Road, Don Mills, Ontario, Canada M3B 3K9. CLS
All characters in this book have no existence outside the imagination of the author and have no relation whatsoever to anyone bearing the same name or names. They are not even distantly inspired by any individual known or unknown to the author, and all incidents are pure invention.
This edition published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.
® and TM are trademarks of the publisher. Trademarks indicated with ® are registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office, the Canadian Trade Marks Office and in other countries.
Printed in U.S.A.
rain had slowed to a steady downpour as the storm receded, grumbling, leaving a power cut as its parting shot. As the taxi drove away Jo hurried up the path in total darkness, then stopped halfway, listening. Someone was following her. She swung round belligerently.
'Who's there?' she demanded.
A flash of lightning lit up a hard, masculine face above a glimmer of pale raincoat before darkness fell again.
she said incredulously.
'Good evening, Jo,' said Rufus Grierson. 'Sorry to startle you. I waited for you in the car.'
She breathed in shakily. '
It's after midnight. Is something wrong?'
'No more than usual. Could I come in for a minute?'
Jo peered at his tall shape through the darkness while her heartbeat slowed. 'Well—yes I suppose so.' She fumbled in her bag for her key. 'But you'll have to find your way up to the top floor in the dark.'
'This must keep you fit,' he observed, close behind her as she led the way up several flights of stairs, his manner as laconic and impersonal as the last time they'd spoken, almost a year before.
'Not so you'd notice,' panted Jo, out of breath for reasons other than exertion as they reached her door. 'I'll go in first and find a torch. Wait here, please.'
Leaving her unexpected visitor on the landing, Jo felt her way through her sitting room to the kitchen area, her hands trembling as she searched in a drawer for a torch. Thankful it was still working, she found her
supply of candles, stuck them on saucers and distributed flickering lights round the room. She beckoned Rufus inside, and he closed the door behind him, standing just inside the confines of the attic flat that Jo called home.
'You'd better take off your raincoat,' she said awkwardly, removing her own. 'I'll put it in the bathroom to drip.'
'Thank you,' said Rufus Grierson. He handed the expensive garment over and ran a hand through his wet hair. 'It's later than
. I lost track of the time.'
Jo took the coats away and hung them up in her tiny bathroom, feeling utterly shattered by Rufus
presence in her flat. For some time now she'd been sure that their last meeting, almost a year ago, had been just that—the last time they would ever meet, unless by accident. At first she'd hoped— longed—to hear from him, but as the months went by she'd gradually resigned herself to the fact that Rufus thought of her merely as a painful reminder of all he'd lost. Yet now he was here, out of the blue. Why? Jo pulled herself together and rejoined him.
'Do sit down,' she said politely. 'Coffee?'
Rufus sat on her sofa and crossed his long legs. 'Could you possibly run to something stronger?'
Jo nodded, and, torch in hand, went to the kitchen for the bottle of brandy her mother insisted on for emergencies. Jo collected two glasses, went back to her guest and asked him to pour.
'Thank you,' said Rufus. 'I take it you're having some too?'
'Just a little.' Hoping it would calm her down, she took the glass from him and sat in her usual chair. 'Stupid of me to offer coffee with no electricity to make it.'
'It seemed impolite to point that out.' He poured an equally sparing measure for himself, but left the brandy untouched beside him. He sat looking at Jo in silence, his face haggard in the flickering candlelight, with new lines carved in it since she'd last seen him. At last she could stand it no longer, and asked him bluntly why he was actually here in her flat long past a socially acceptable time for a visit.
'I was in the Mitre earlier for a meal with a colleague,' he said obliquely. 'I saw you behind the bar in the other room, but you were run off your feet. There was obviously no chance of talking to you there, so I drove round here later and waited for you to come home.'
'I might not have been coming home,' she pointed out. 'Or I could have moved.'
'I did some research on both points first, naturally.'
'I see,' said Jo. Not that she did.
'Do you know what day it is?' he asked.
Did he think she could have forgotten? She stared blindly into her glass. 'It's your wedding anniversary.'
'You remembered, then.'
Her chin went up. 'Of course I remembered.'
'I thought you might. Bridesmaids usually do.' Rufus Grierson gazed at her through the dim, flickering light, his brooding eyes dark in the olive-skinned face which always, to Jo, wore a look of superiority, as though Rufus considered himself a cut above her. Jo Fielding and Rufus Grierson had never been comfortable in each other's vicinity. Which had been awkward when he married her closest friend, Claire.
'How are you?' asked Jo after a long, difficult pause.
'I get by,' he said very quietly. 'And you?'
'The same. I work hard.'
'Does it help?'
'Yes.' She looked at him squarely. 'Tell me, after all this time why exactly are you here, Rufus? On this day, of all days, I must be the last person you want to see.'
'On the contrary.' He drank some of his brandy. "Though I admit I deliberately arranged a business dinner for tonight with someone who had never met Claire, in an effort to avoid talking about her.' He paused, jaw set. 'It still hurts.'
Jo had no doubt of it.
'Then I caught sight of you behind the bar,' Rufus went on, 'and suddenly I
to talk about Claire. And who better to talk to on this subject than you! So when the man left I drove round here.'
'Just to talk about Claire?' Jo stared at him suspiciously. 'But you always resented me—and the time she spent with me.'
'Actually, you're mistaken. I didn't resent it at all.' He glanced at the candle on the table behind him. 'This is on its last legs. Do you have any more?'
'Could you borrow some from the other tenants?'
'Everyone's away,' admitted Jo with some reluctance. 'We'll have to make do with these.' I 'Then put a couple out and save them for later.'
Jo got up and extinguished two of the candles, plunging the room into semi-darkness. She felt lightheaded, both with fatigue and the shock of meeting Rufus again. It was hard to grapple with the fact that she was alone in a room with the man Claire had wanted for a husband from the moment she first set eyes on him. Rufus had been the perfect husband for Claire, just what the Beaumonts had always dreamed of for their daughter—successful, secure, even attractive, in a remote, damn-your-eyes kind of way.
But Rufus Grierson, thought Jo bitterly, had never approved of his wife's closest friend. A freelance journalist who spent evenings behind a bar to make ends meet had rather obviously been a bit hard to take for the successful, ultra-conventional lawyer. Jo, determinedly cool in return, had kept her own opinion of him secret from Claire and made sure their paths crossed as little as possible. For Claire's sake the husband and the friend had preserved the civilities. And once Claire was dead Rufus Grierson had obviously seen no reason to come into contact with Jo Fielding again. Until now. Tonight was their first encounter since the funeral, and to her dismay Jo felt no more at ease in his presence now than she had then.
'You want me to go,' Rufus read her mind.
'No,' she said quickly. 'If it helps you to stay for a while, please do. Talk about Claire as much as you like. When I visit her parents they talk about nothing else, of course, which is—painful.' Jo bit a suddenly quivering bottom lip. 'It's different with my own family. When Claire's name comes up we just chat about her normally.'
'It's good that you can do that. Claire enjoyed spending time with your family—probably because it was so different from her own.' His eyes shadowed. 'She was a much indulged only child, of course. Growing up must have been a lot different for you, Jo. Tell me about it.'
She eyed him doubtfully. 'Are you sure you want to know? Our household bore no resemblance at all to the Beaumonts'.'
Rufus smiled faintly. 'So I gathered from Claire. I was always curious about the attraction it held for her.'
'Contrast, I suppose. There was never much cash to spare in my family, but the atmosphere at home was always—well, happy, really. My father taught classics at Pennington Boys School and coached the first-eleven cricket team. Even when he was at home he usually had some pupil or other around for extra tuition. Dad was a darling, but a typical academic— not the least handy about the house. There was no money to pay people to do the decorating, so my mother did it all, in between her PPP work—'
'What on earth was that?' he asked, relaxing slightly.
'Painting pet portraits,' Jo informed him. 'She always seemed to have a paintbrush in her hand for one reason or another, not to mention a hammer, or a screwdriver. She was perpetually mending something—in between baking and making our clothes and doing
and helping us with homework and so on.'
'Is she still alive?'
'Very much so! My sister Thalia lives in part of one of those large country houses they divide up into posh apartments, and Mother lives in the lodge at one of the gates.' Jo smiled a little. 'She doesn't have to do repairs any more but she still paints animal portraits. My other sister lives only a few miles from her in Oxford, too, so it suits everyone.'
'I heard that your father died.'
'Yes.' Jo's smile vanished. 'I miss him. It was hard to lose him so soon after—' She sipped some of her brandy hastily, coughed for a moment, then looked at him diffidently. 'It was good of you to write to Mother. She moved not long afterwards. But that's enough about my family. You really wanted to talk about Claire.'
'Not exclusively. I think I just needed to talk to someone who loved Claire for what she was—not a saint, but a warm, loving human being. Her parents have totally
her since she died.' Rufus drained his glass. 'May I have another drink?' he added, the diminishing light giving his voice a curiously disembodied quality.
He poured a little brandy into his glass. 'I've sold the house at last.'
'Perhaps that's a good thing.'
'It is. I should have done it right away. It was so full of Claire, I had no hope of coming to terms with her death while I stayed there. I kept expecting to hear her voice, see her walk through the door.' Eyes
, he sipped some of his drink. 'So I moved into town. I've spent a lot of time packing and unpacking tea chests lately. I found these. I thought you'd like to have them as a keepsake.' Rufus took a small jeweller's box from his pocket and snapped it open.
Jo felt a searing pang of pain as she stared at the pendent pearl earrings that Claire had worn on her wedding day. She shook her head involuntarily. 'I— I can't take these, Rufus. They should go to Mrs Beaumont.'
'I handed the rest of Claire's
over after the funeral,' he said quietly. 'I'd rather you had the pearls. I'm sure Claire would too. They were my personal wedding present to her, if you remember.'
Jo nodded wordlessly. How could she forget? Claire's wedding day was imprinted indelibly on her mind.
Rufus took a deep, ragged breath. 'I came across an old dinner jacket the other day and found the earrings in the pocket. Claire must have taken them off when we were at some party or other.' He held them out. 'She would have wanted you to have them.'
Jo took the box reluctantly. 'Thank you. I'll— treasure them.' But she would never wear them. Gypsy hoops were more her style.
There was an awkward pause while they avoided each other's eyes, Rufus sitting like a graven image.
'Are you still writing?' he asked at last.
'Yes. I'm just finishing a novel.' Now, why on earth had she told him
'Yes.' Jo peered at him through the gloom. 'Did you think I gave up my job at the
because I was allergic to steady employment?' She forced a shaky little laugh, trying to lighten the atmosphere. 'Ah! You did.'
'Of course not. But Claire never mentioned a novel.'
'I didn't tell her.' Jo hesitated. 'I wanted to find out if I could do it before broadcasting the news. Mother knows what I'm up to, of course, but no one else. Except you now.' She eyed him militantly.
'Your secret's safe with me.'
'No one you know would be remotely interested, anyway,' she retorted.
'So you work at the Mitre instead of starving in a garret,' Rufus remarked, making a visible effort to shrug off his melancholy.
you earn enough to make life bearable?'
'Oh, yes,' she assured him. 'My articles pay reasonably well. My father left me a tiny legacy from an insurance policy, which eased my path quite a bit, and when Mother sold the house here in Pennington she gave me a bit more. It ran to a very basic word processor, and left me something in the bank for emergencies.' She paused, flushing, suddenly aware that she was talking too much. 'How about you, Rufus?'
'Like you, my work fills the vacuum. The firm's busy as ever, due to the solid client base we've established over the past few years. My brother's joined it now.'
'I don't know much about law. Do you
He nodded. 'I advise merchant banks, financial institutions, public limited companies—that kind of thing.'
'Sounds very high-powered.'
'It keeps me busy.'
There was silence for a moment, then Jo got up and relit one of the candles. 'I wish the electricity would come back. Silly, really, but the moment we get a power cut I yearn for tea.'
'It's human nature to yearn for what we can't have,' said Rufus, with sudden, startling bitterness.
Jo felt a lump in her throat. The first wedding anniversary after his wife's death was obviously hard for him. She sat down again, peering at the taut, hard features she could only just make out in the gloom. 'I know we're not soul mates, exactly, Rufus, but we've been acquainted a long time—'
'Which means you're about to say something likely to offend,' he said drily.
'I thought my mere presence in the same room was enough to do that,' she retorted, stung. 'You certainly behaved like it in the old days when—'
'When Claire was alive,' he said morosely, then gave her a long, dissecting look. 'You were rarely in my company at all, Jo. You took good care not to be.'
'It seemed the best way to make life easy for Claire,' said Jo quietly.
'Life usually was easy for Claire.' Rufus leaned forward, his hands clasped between his knees. 'It was a damnable twist of fate to deny her the one remaining thing she lacked—and wanted more than anything else in the world.'
a bitter twist
to his mouth. 'Odd, really. Two normal, healthy people get married and a child is the usual outcome. But not in our case. And the worst part was that Claire began to feel she'd failed me. I won't deny I wanted a child. I did. I still do, very much. But no matter how much I told Claire I loved her, child or no child, that we could adopt if necessary, it was no use.'
Rufus ran an unsteady hand through his damp hair. 'Poor darling, she became obsessed—swallowed handfuls of vitamins, checked her temperature constantly so she'd know when she was most fertile, could hardly talk of anything else. She insisted we made love only when the time was right—' He shot a sudden, appalled look at Jo. 'Forgive me. You don't want to hear this.'
'I knew some of it,' she muttered, staring down at her clasped hands. 'Not anything private, of course, but I knew about the ever present thermometer and the vitamin-E pills, the special diet. I looked on it all as another good reason for staying single.'
Rufus frowned, his eyes questioning. 'But you
going to marry someone, Jo. I've only just discovered you called it off.'
It didn't work out.' She shrugged. 'I like men. They like me. But these days I enjoy coming home here and closing the door on the world.' She gave him a wry little smile. 'I was brought up in a household with a strong female majority. I adored my father, but other than him, a man has never been vitally necessary to my life.'
'What about sex?' said Rufus baldly.
'Well, yes. A man's necessary then, of course.' Jo looked away,
. 'But, since you've brought the subject up, I admit I can live quite happily without a sexual relationship.'
'Ah, but you're a man.'
Rufus' dark, narrowed eyes met hers. 'You never seemed aware of the fact.'
'Of course I was,' she said impatiently. 'You're not the sort of man to go unnoticed. But you were— well. . .'
'Someone you disliked.'
'No,' she said, with more truth than he knew. 'Just not my style, I suppose.'
'You're very polite. Do you still feel the same about me, Jo?' he asked, surprising her.
If she'd conned herself into thinking she didn't, one look at him tonight had demonstrated beyond all doubt that she did. 'I haven't thought about you in a long time,' she said, crossing mental fingers at the lie.
'I think it was always your damnable honesty I couldn't cope with,' he said bitterly. 'It does damn all for a man's ego to know he's not worth a woman's consideration.'
'I should imagine, Rufus Grierson, that you've had plenty of consideration from a great many women over the past year—an eligible widower in need of consolation,' she added deliberately.
'The operative word, Jo Fielding, is widower,' he pointed out with stark emphasis. 'A grieving widower, I might remind you.'
His reminder was hardly necessary, thought Jo miserably. After Claire he probably couldn't bear the thought of any other woman. 'But you must have been invited to a good many dinner parties in the past few months.'
'Invited, yes. But unless the dinners were legal, all- male affairs I've rarely accepted.'
'Apart from the obvious, old-fashioned reason of being in mourning for my wife, I prefer to avoid being paired with anyone, even at a dinner table,' Rufus said bluntly. 'I'm a normal sort of male. Among the things I miss from my marriage the sex is by no means the least. But I won't buy it. Nor will I mislead any woman who's convinced I'm contemplating marriage again.'
Jo digested this in silence. 'But surely you will marry again, one day?' she asked eventually.
'Who knows?' Rufus looked at his watch. 'It's late. I should go. But I dislike the thought of leaving you alone here in the dark.'
'I'll be fine,' Jo assured him, though in her heart of hearts she wasn't relishing a night alone in the big old house without a light. But she wanted Rufus to stay longer for more reasons than a mere fear of the dark.
'I'd prefer to wait for a while,' said Rufus abruptly.
'Then by all means do.' She smiled a little. 'One of the advantages of my particular lifestyle is not having to get up at the crack of dawn if I don't want to.'
Rufus subjected her to a long, dissecting scrutiny. 'You've changed a lot in a year, Jo. You look older.'
'Gee, thanks! Maturity setting in,' she said flippantly.
'I put it badly. You always looked years younger than Claire, though I knew you weren't.'
'A year younger, to be precise. We're both September birthdays, but she was the oldest in the class and I was the youngest.'
'And the cleverest, too, according to Claire. I was given chapter and verse about your exam results.'
'No wonder you took a dislike to me!' Jo pulled a face. 'I don't know about the cleverest, but I was certainly the cheekiest. At home everyone was encouraged to have their say, even the youngest like me. At school this was a disadvantage. I was always being told to stop talking, behave myself, sit up straight, and so on. Claire was so different in every way—pretty as a picture, popular with staff and classmates, and as good as gold, always.'
'Always,' he agreed, then smiled crookedly. 'You know, it's good to have her name crop up naturally; I'm grateful for your forbearance, Jo. A late-night visitor must be the last thing you need after your stint at the Mitre. I caught sight of you there and acted on impulse.'
'Impulse isn't something I associate with you, Rufus.'
'No,' he agreed. 'Not my style. Not that you have the least idea of what I'm really like.'
'You always disapproved of me—admit it!'
Rufus shook his head, frowning. 'I didn't, you know. Though I admit I couldn't see why you and Claire were so close. Two more contrasting types would be hard to find.'
'True. But somehow we just gelled from the moment we met, that first day in school. Where appearance was concerned, it was a different story. When we were in uniform it wasn't so bad, but out of school hours the contrast was painful.'
'Clothes don't interest you?' he asked curiously.
Jo shook her head at him. 'Of course they do. I'm a normal female, Rufus!'
'You always wore jeans a lot. I hardly
'If that's a compliment, thank you,' she said tartly, then glanced down disparagingly. "This is the type of gear I stick to for my job at the Mitre. Tailored shirt, respectable dark skirt, discreet make-up, hair braided back.'
'Otherwise the punters get familiar?' he queried drily.
She nodded. 'It's been known.'
'But do you keep all men at arm's length, Jo?'
'No, not at all. I have several men
she said with emphasis. 'Not lovers, boyfriends or prospective husbands. Just friends.'
'If you were any other woman I wouldn't believe you,' said Rufus in a considering tone, as though he were weighing up some legal problem. 'Personally, I've never been a believer in truly platonic relationships between the sexes.'
'No,' she said coolly. 'A man like you wouldn't. Nevertheless, it's perfectly possible, I assure you.'
'From your point of view, perhaps. I doubt if the men in question agree.'
'Whether they do or not they keep their opinions to themselves,' she said flatly. 'I've no intention of falling in love. Ever. I'm just not the type to get wrapped up in a man the way Claire was in you. You were the centre of her universe. Her life revolved around you. I can't imagine feeling like that about any man. The only other male she was ever interested in was her horse—' Jo went cold, cursing her unruly tongue. 'Oh, Lord, I'm so
'Don't be. It's the truth.'
Jo sighed. 'Well, as we're on the subject, I could never understand how her horse came to throw her. Claire was such a good horsewoman.'
'She must have lost her concentration,' said Rufus, the
deepening from nose to mouth. 'She was in a state that morning because nature had just informed her she wasn't pregnant. Every month it was the same, and there was nothing I could do to comfort her. To "blow the blues away", as she put it, she'd go off on that damned horse and gallop up on the heath until she felt better.'
'Yet she wasn't on the heath when it happened,' said Jo sadly.
'No.' His eyes darkened. 'She was just hacking along a bridle-path she'd used for years. Something spooked the horse—a squirrel probably, or a rabbit. Claire was thrown, the strap of her hat snapped and her head struck an outcropping of rock. Death,' said Rufus, his voice cracking, 'was instantaneous.' He shuddered. 'I was told to be grateful for that.'
'Don't.' Impulsively, Jo jumped from her chair and went to sit beside him, putting her hand on his. Rufus took it,
tightly that she thought the bones would crack.
'I shouldn't have said that.' He frowned as he saw the glimmer of tears on her cheeks in the candlelight. 'Hell, I've made you cry. Jo, I'm sorry. Come here.' He drew her into his arms and held her close, her face against his shoulder.
'Do you know, I've never cried for Claire before?' she said, her tear-thickened voice muffled against his jacket. 'I longed to. But I never could.'
'Then it's time you did,' he said huskily, and smoothed a hand over her hair. The light, delicate touch snapped her self-control. Jo sagged against him, racked by sobs, and Rufus Grierson held her tightly, his own body taut with answering emotion as he waited for the storm to pass.
'I'm ruining your jacket,' Jo said hoarsely at last, and Rufus sat her upright and stripped the jacket off, before returning her to her place against his shoulder.
'Soak the shirt as much as you like,' he said gruffly, and Jo gave a strangled little sound, half-laugh, half- hiccup.
Rufus held her closer and patted her back, his hand warm through the thin cotton of her shirt. Eventually the hand stilled and lay heavy between her should-
and Jo tensed and tried to sit up, but the hand was like iron on her back, holding her solidly against his chest.
Jo raised her face in entreaty. 'Rufus—' She stopped, her heart thudding as her eyes met a look of such blind need that she trembled violently. Then his mouth was on hers, and she gasped and tried to push him away, but he held her fast, his mouth softening, coaxing, his tongue persistent. Her disobedient lips parted and, undermined by the rarity of her tears, Jo's resistance was nil when his arms tightened round her.
The heat from his body ignited her response in a way he
and reacted to, nurturing the flame with caresses which took her breath away. A shudder ran through him, and his hands and mouth moved over her with such sure, importuning skill that she was
, not only before the driving force of his need, but before her own, incontrollable response to it.
She was where she'd always longed to be, and she shook from head to foot, vulnerable to his urgent, itinerant mouth and skilled, disrobing hands, with neither will nor desire to prevent the urgent male body when, at last, it sought the release denied it during the past lonely months. As they came together all the grief and pent-up emotions of the past year engulfed them, welding them together in a desperate need for consolation which quickly transformed into unimagined, overwhelming rapture and brought them rapidly to shared, gasping culmination.
Then the overhead light came on.
Jo wrenched herself free and dived for her clothes, her averted face scarlet with embarrassment as she fled, heart pounding, to the sanctuary of the bathroom. What, in heaven's name, had
her? She looked at herself in the mirror and shuddered, pulling on her clothes at top speed. Given the choice, she thought savagely, she would stay in the bathroom indefinitely, until Rufus took the hint and went away. But his manners were too good to allow him to do that, of course.
It was a good ten minutes before she felt sufficiently recovered to emerge from the bathroom, fully dressed, face repaired, tangled hair brushed free of its
braid, to confront Rufus Grierson.
Instead of sitting on the sofa, superior and unmoved, without a hair out of place, as she'd expected, Rufus was in the kitchen, filling her kettle.
'You said you were yearning for tea,' he said calmly.
But Jo wasn't listening. Now Rufus' thick coppery hair had dried out a gleaming layer of silver lay over the surface, like a coating of frost on autumn leaves. The contrast with his bronzed face and dark eyes was dramatic.
He smiled a little. 'I didn't turn white with shock while you were in the bathroom. The process started when Claire died.'
Claire. A burning tide of
swept up Jo's throat and face, then receded again below the blue and white stripes of her shirt, leaving her face sallow and
beneath a tan darker than Rufus
He switched the kettle on, then leaned against the kitchen counter, arms folded as he watched her
recede. 'You are now racked with guilt and about to hurl recriminations at my head.'
Jo squared her shoulders. 'No. We're both adults, Rufus. We know that what happened was—was just a mutual need for comfort. You say you haven't slept with a woman since Claire died; tonight you were missing her more than usual, and when I cried you comforted me. I quite understand.' Which was true enough. She understood only too well. Her role in the proceedings had been as substitute for Rufus
beautiful, dead Claire.
Rufus went on gazing at her with the same, disquieting look.
Jo motioned him out of the way as the kettle boiled. She put teabags in a pot, poured in boiling water, put the lid on, then turned to look at him. 'Look, Rufus,' she said rather desperately, 'let's not beat about the bush. What happened tonight was the natural outcome of shared grief. The fact that we've never been—well, close before was irrelevant at that particular moment in time. It was your anniversary and you badly needed—'
'I didn't come here looking for sex,' he said with sudden, fierce distaste. 'It never entered my head. I just came to hand over the earrings and maybe talk for a while. As I did until you cried.' He frowned. 'Claire told me often that you never cried over anything, even as a little girl.'
'True. But I'm only human,' said Jo forlornly.
'So am I, Jo Fielding, so am I!' Rufus caught her hand in his. 'Are you waiting for an apology for what happened just now? I'd be lying if I said I was sorry.' His eyes held hers intently. 'Deprivation obviously had something to do with it on my part, as did our emotions for both of us. Nevertheless, what we shared together was no run-of-the-mill sexual experience. For me, anyway.'
'For me too,' said Jo, incurably honest. Her eyes fell. 'Which doesn't make it any easier. I feel so
'So do I.' He breathed in deeply. 'Even though I'm utterly certain Claire would understand.'
'Probably she would,' said Jo wretchedly. 'She always had a much nicer nature than mine. Though she might have understood more easily if it was someone else. Not me.'
Rufus made no attempt to deny it, and an awkward silence fell between them.
'I'd better go,' he said at last.
'Would you like some tea first?' she felt obliged to ask.
He shook his head. 'No, thanks. Goodnight, Jo.'
'Goodnight.' She walked with him to the door, feeling as gauche and awkward as a schoolgirl. 'Thank you for bringing the earrings. I'll take great care of them.'
Rufus reached a hand inside his jacket and took out his wallet. He took a card from it and gave it to her. 'This is my new address and telephone number. If you need me call me.'
Jo took the card without argument, but with no intention of ringing Rufus Grierson, ever. 'Goodbye, Rufus. The landing lights are automatic. They'll switch off once you've closed the outer door downstairs.'
He looked down into her eyes for a moment. 'Are you sure you're all right, Jo?'
She met the look squarely. 'Yes. I'm fine.'
To her surprise he took her by the shoulders and kissed her cheek. 'Goodnight, Jo. Take care.'
'You too,' she said huskily, and watched him as he went downstairs and out of sight. She waited until he'd reached the floor below, then locked her door, made sure all the candles were properly snuffed, picked up a cushion which had landed on the floor at some stage. She eyed it malevolently, then perched on a kitchen stool to drink the tea she'd made and sat staring into space, depressed and shaken, feeling as though life would never be the same again. At last she heaved a sigh and trudged off to have a bath, then groaned in frustration at the sight of Rufus
expensive raincoat hanging in the shower stall.
Jo hurried through her bath, pulled on a T-shirt and dived into bed, determined to erase the events of the past few hours from her mind. There was no point in dwelling on it, telling herself she should have protested louder, fought harder—done
Because she hadn't. Quite simply, it had been impossible to resist the man she'd fallen in love with the first time she'd ever set eyes on him. She could only hope that after tonight he still had no idea how she felt.
While Claire was alive she'd worked hard to preserve the fiction that Jo Fielding and Rufus Grierson would never be friends. On Rufus' part, of course, this had been true enough. He probably hadn't given her a thought all this past year while he was grieving for Claire. Jo shivered. The last thing Rufus Grierson had intended was making love to her tonight, she knew perfectly well. He had come to deliver the earrings and just talk about his dead wife with someone who— in an entirely different way—had loved Claire as much as he did.
For a woman who cried once in a blue moon, Jo told herself bitterly, tonight, of all nights, had not been a good time to emote all over Rufus Grierson. Not that she'd chosen to cry. It had just happened. But if she hadn't cried Rufus wouldn't have taken her
his arms to
her, and she wouldn't have lost control—and neither would he. She groaned aloud and turned out the light, needing the dark.
Sleep was hard to come by. To her fury the moment Jo closed her eyes she kept reliving the entire disturbing episode from beginning to end, and at last lay staring, wide-eyed, into the darkness, searching for something to occupy her mind, to blot out the sheer magic of a pleasure she'd never experienced before.
In college there'd been Linus Cole, the postgraduate student who'd dazzled the little freshman with his attentions, and introduced her to what he'd referred to with relish as 'the pleasures of the flesh'. Then, instead of producing a ring as she'd naively expected, he went off to take up his fellowship at Cambridge without a backward glance. Thereafter Jo had firmly kept the rest of marauding student manhood at arm's length. It was much later on in her career that she met Edward Hyde, and for a while had even become engaged to him.
Jo sighed. She'd been madly in love with Linus, and very fond of Edward, but neither of them had come remotely near giving her the pleasure experienced tonight with Rufus. She ground her teeth, tossed and turned, got up and made herself some tea, went back to bed, and still couldn't sleep. And in her efforts to blot out Rufus' lovemaking she let herself think instead of the last time they'd met—a harrowing occasion she normally tried not to think of at all.
been a hot August day of bright sunlight and clear blue skies: weather more suitable for a wedding than a funeral.
For the first time in their acquaintance, the two people facing each other across the open grave had something in common. They were the only dry-eyed mourners as the clergyman read the service of committal. Jo stood, rigid, enduring, dazed by the utter unreality of the situation. On such a glorious day it was so hard to believe that Claire—beautiful, warm, loving Claire—had gone for ever. The scent of recently scythed grass lay heavy in the air, bringing back memories of long summer holidays when both schoolgirls had
every moment before the autumn term put an end to summer idleness.
Contributions to charity had been requested instead of flowers, but a single floral tribute lay on the gleaming oak lid of the coffin. Jo stared numbly at the replica of the wedding bouquet that Claire had carried two years earlier when she'd married the man who stood, still as a statue, on the opposite side of the grave. Jo kept her eyes averted from his grief. She looked down steadfastly on the
lilies and yellow rosebuds, and shivered as the first handful of earth hit the coffin.
At last it was over. Jo waited her turn among the mourners, then held out a hand to Rufus Grierson and murmured
took the hand for a moment in a hard grasp, said something appropriate in clipped, disciplined tones. Jo moved on to exchange embraces with Claire's devastated parents, and, much against her will, promised to go back to the imposing Victorian house where Claire had grown up. Refusing a lift, she set off alone.
Hot in the navy linen dress borrowed from her sister, Jo walked slowly, sure she would cry at last once she was alone. But the relief of tears never came. She had dreaded the ritual of muted voices over
and sherry, but knew it would give some small measure of comfort to Claire's parents. For the past week they had been caught up, like Rufus, in the
of funeral arrangements. But Jo was sure their loss would finally strike home when all was quiet and the last guest had gone. It would be the same for Rufus, of course, but he could one day find himself another wife. The Beaumonts could never replace their only child. There wasn't even a grandchild to give them solace, despite Claire's desperate desire to get pregnant.
'I'm not even thirty yet, Jo,' she'd said, just a few short weeks earlier. 'There's all sorts of treatment I still haven't tried. I've got loads of time.'
But Claire had run out of time one fine summer morning.
Jo came to with a start as a car glided to a halt just ahead of her. 'I'll give you a lift,' said Rufus, leaning over to open the passenger door for her.
The last thing Jo's battered emotions needed was a ride in a car alone with Rufus. She got in reluctantly, and fastened the seat belt. 'I thought you were with the others,' she said, her heart contracting at the bleak, weary look on his face.
'I needed to be on my own for a while.'
'Yes,' agreed Jo
. 'I was walking for the same reason.' She turned to him hastily. 'Though I appreciate the lift, of course.'
'No need to be polite, Jo,' he snapped, then touched a hand fleetingly to hers in apology. 'Sorry. I'm on edge.'
As well he might be, thought Jo with compassion, glad when the car turned down the narrow lane towards the Beaumonts' house. Rufus parked the car at the end of a long line of others and Jo got out to walk beside him along the familiar driveway to the open front door.
'God, I wish this were over,' said Rufus, with sudden, quiet violence.
'So do I.' Jo's teeth sank into her quivering bottom lip.
He looked down into her face, and breathed out slowly. 'Of course you do.' To her surprise he took her hand and held it tightly for a moment. 'All right?'
She nodded mutely, and his face relaxed a little.
'Come on, then. Let's face the music.'
The Beaumonts were in the hall, in unconscious parody of a receiving line at a wedding. They were more composed, Gloria Beaumont's eyes still red, but dry now under the stylish black hat. Ted Beaumont, large and bluff as a rule, but oddly diminished today, wrung Rufus's hand in silence, and Jo hugged Claire's mother close in wordless sympathy, then offered to help the maid with the food.
'Oh, my dear, would you?' said Gloria in gratitude.
'I'll see to the drinks,' said Rufus.
Keeping herself occupied helped Jo to deal with the situation. And, she suspected, it was the same for Rufus. Elegant as always in
bespoke tailoring, he circulated with glasses and decanters, evading long exchanges with any group other than his family. Jo served guests with delicious
and stifled a searing dart of pain when she found they came from the bakery who'd once provided cream cakes for two hungry schoolgirls. As she moved through the room Jo's fragile composure was tested to the utmost by condolences from people who knew how close she'd been to Claire.
At last Ted Beaumont closed the door on the final,
face with a sigh of relief, and urged Jo to stay to dinner.
'Sorry, I can't,' said Jo, desperate to get away. 'I'm working tonight.'
'Couldn't they give you the night off in the circumstances?' pleaded Gloria Beaumont.
Jo shook her head, feeling guilty. 'Two of the others are on holiday. I can't really let them down. I should have been working at lunchtime today as it was.'
Rufus frowned. 'I thought you worked in the evenings.'
'As I said—it's holiday time. I've been filling in.' Jo smiled apologetically. 'The extra money comes in useful.'
'At least let Rufus drive you home,' said Ted. 'I would myself, but I've had a drop too much to drink.'
Jo shook her head. 'No, really. I need some fresh air before my stint at the
And, more than fresh air, she needed time to herself to say her last, private goodbyes to Claire.
Rufus saw her out and accompanied her down to the gates, his eyes bloodshot and his face
, despite the heat.
'Are you sure about walking?' he asked. 'Let me run you home.'
'It's very kind of you, but I'd rather walk. I
to walk,' she added unsteadily.
The evening sun outlined Rufus' hair with fire as he looked down at her. 'You look exhausted. And you've lost weight.'
'It's the dress. It's a size too big—and I look terrible in navy. I borrowed it from my sister. None of my things were suitable for the—the occasion.' Abruptly Jo came to the end of her tether. 'Goodbye, Rufus. I really must go.'
'I'll ring you,' he said.
'That's probably not a good idea—'
'As you wish,' he said instantly.
She watched, dismayed, as every vestige of warmth vanished from his face. She had meant it wasn't a good idea for the time being. Not for ever. But something in Rufus' manner made it impossible to explain.
He inclined his head formally. 'I'll say goodbye, Jo.'
She gave him a depressed little nod, hesitated, then turned and walked away, utterly dejected.
It was better this way, she told herself firmly. A clean break with Rufus was best all round. She must forget him. Even with Claire dead Jo knew she had no hope of succeeding her friend in Rufus' affections. Claire had been beautiful both by nature and to look
at, her only aim in life to please the husband who was so much her intellectual superior. Jo knew she could never be like that. She was neither as beautiful as Claire nor as compliant. She would find it impossible to live her life merely as an extension of some man- even a man like Rufus Grierson. Yet, to be fair, Claire had been ideally happy with her marriage, apart from her inability to give Rufus a child.
Weariness put an end to Jo's introspection. The early-evening sunshine was hot as she trudged down the road, and the headache she'd been holding at bay homed in as she let go the iron control she'd exerted all afternoon. But still the tears refused to flow—for Claire, or for Rufus.
It would have done her good to cry that day, she thought now, in the sleepless dark of the present. It might have eased her aching sense of loss.
At the age of ten Jo Fielding had won a scholarship to the expensive school where she met Claire Beaumont on the first day and began a friendship which ended only with Claire's death. The bond between two such very different children was a mystery to everyone who knew them. Claire had needed special, expensive tuition to help her pass the entrance examination to the highly academic school, while Jo, almost a year younger, had done so well that her scholarship paid the fees for her entire school career. Claire was tall for her age, well behaved, blonde and rounded, her school uniform always immaculate, Jo inches shorter, wiry, brown-skinned, black-haired and mischievous and rarely tidy from the moment she left home.
Eventually Claire went to a finishing school in Switzerland and Jo to university to read English, but their relationship survived surprisingly well. Inevitably they saw less of each other, but when they were both in Pennington they picked up where they'd left off and spent as much time as they could together, swapping boasts about boyfriends and roaring with laughter over anecdotes from their vastly disparate lives.
Claire learned cordon bleu cooking, the art of entertaining, and how to make the most of her already dazzling looks. Her flawless skin and blue eyes were framed by corn-
hair cut by a master hand, and she wore simple, understated clothes with world- famous labels.
Jo shared a chaotic household with several students of both sexes and ate junk food, all her spare cash spent on books. Her wiry, boyish figure soon became skinny, and her dark hair, worn long to save expense, lost its gloss. She studied hard, enjoyed tutorials, and sat for hours with her peers in the students' union over half a pint of lager, arguing hotly about putting the world to rights. To her mother's despair she dressed in leggings teamed with sweaters from charity shops and cadged cast-offs from her sisters for her bar job at the Mitre during vacations.
The twins, who by this time both had high-powered jobs in banking, despaired of turning their ugly duckling of a sister into a swan, then one day
they didn't have to. Jo achieved a very good degree, followed it with a course in computers, then got a job with the
From then on she paid more attention to clothes, rounded out on her mother's cooking, and, though never as opulently curved as Claire, at least looked like the female she was, rather than her sisters' skinny little brother.