CLAIRE FOUND THE THOMPSON house without difficulty. The invitation had been unexpected but expressed in the kindest terms. She hadn’t hesitated to accept, though now, as she gave her coat to the smiling woman who had opened the front door, she wondered if she’d done the right thing. Then she noticed the small painted oval, translucent and metal encased, which stood propped near an arrangement of flowering jasmine on the gleaming hall table. She recognised the workshop symbols, tiny outlines in the bright lavender blue of the glass, something a week ago she wouldn’t have been able to do, and the confidence she felt helped her to cross the threshold with a lighter step. Not usually quite so self‑conscious, she wondered if the plain silk jacket and narrow skirt she had chosen would be quite dressed up enough for this particular dinner party.
She had met the woman who had invited her only once before, at a hotel in Malton. They had made the arrangements for the memento Fiona had bequeathed to Margaret Thompson to be delivered to the house Claire, had just this moment, entered. Faced with the kindly concern and genuine warmth of her aunt’s customer, she hadn’t paused to consider exactly what she was doing when she’d agreed to come. Now here she was, meeting the encouraging eyes of the housekeeper holding her coat. She checked her appearance in a gilt framed glass which filled the wall between the doors to the main rooms of the ground floor. She saw a slender young woman of average height whose blue eyes seemed to deepen in colour as she smiled. Her hair was a wonderful streaky gold, her skin pale except that her cheeks still glowed a peachy pink.
“So cold and almost April. I think winter is coming back.”
Claire agreed, rueful. The late evening clouds were low and heavy, but there was scarcely any wind. During the day it had rained, but this had stopped towards teatime. She had been signing letters of thanks for the condolences which had come personally to her; preoccupied, sad and restless, she hadn’t taken notice of the weather until she was on her way, out to dinner among virtual strangers, in what had turned out to be a most beautiful area of exceptionally well‑kept terraces, all fine stonework and painted railings and window boxes of spring flowers for which the hard threat of frost now in the air might well prove too much.
“Here’s Mrs Thompson.” The housekeeper smiled, then went quickly along the hall to the back of the house.
“Claire. I’m so glad to see you.” Margaret Thompson’s eyes were worried, but her whole manner spoke of genuine welcome. “Let me say what I should have said when we met before. I was so very sorry about the accident. A dreadful coincidence. If there was nothing that anyone could do, believe me, things are better this way.” She made a gesture of resignation. “Accept what’s happened.” She had clearly meant to be kind, but seemed suddenly to realise her words might be ill‑judged.
Claire felt a stab of contrition. “I feel now that I didn’t know her very well.” The age difference had been so great. “I hadn’t seen her . . .” She didn’t know how to continue. She had, after all, deliberately kept away. She knew that now. First, things had been too painful, and later there had been her work to provide the reasons she’d used to justify not having come back. Now she could only regret what had happened.
“And her assistant?” Fiona hadn’t been alone when the van had gone out of control.
“I’m going to see him. I’ll let you know.”
“How strange,” said the younger of the two girls. Her voice was friendly, and she was smiling. “Strange that you should both have the same name.”
She was glancing beyond Claire. The door had opened and another man had entered. Claire stared, stupified, blanched, with shock that he should be here, that he had seen her, and with sheer amazement that he should be so little altered. Overwhelmed, she stood gazing helplessly at his approaching figure. When he saw her, he looked at her from head to foot, up and down. She felt herself blush but couldn’t tear her glance away, while beside her young Miss Thompson was babbling a pretty welcome and putting out a hand to effect more introductions.
Claire held her breath, terrified that he would notice the effect he was having on her rapidly disintegrating composure. She was transfixed, but whether by the cool speculation in the brilliant slate grey of his eyes or the forbidden, suppressed leap of her pulse she wasn’t able to judge. Something of both, and though she could do nothing about the appreciation he wasn’t bothering to hide she could, and did, force her mouth into what was no more than a courteous smile. Her fingers gripped the glass she had been given until they were white at the knuckles.
His eyes met hers. And sharpened just a very little, so little that Claire was perfectly sure only she had noticed. Immediately, disquietingly, his gaze was once again courteously detached, then confidently, arrogantly amused.
The pretty voice came clear and sweet.
“Claire Wilding, meet Grant Wilding. I know you are both going to be the greatest friends. I’m Pip. You already know my mother. This is my sister‑in‑law, Jane, and this is my Uncle Philip. I’m named after him. These are my brothers. Laurence is married to Jane, and this is Oliver. It’s simple. Everyone except for you two is called Thompson.” By now she had taken hold of Claire’s arm and was bringing the newcomer’s hand forward so that the two Wildings could shake hands. Something Claire was intensely reluctant to do.
Six years. Almost seven. Claire knew she must stay completely still. It was for him to acknowledge her and she had no idea if he would do so. She held her breath till she knew that if she didn’t exhale, and slowly, she’d be gasping with shock while he’d be effortlessly pretending they had never met. Should she take the initiative? The trouble was that she didn’t know these people and she hadn’t any real idea what to say. And if he denied knowing her, what then? Could she brazen it out? Embarrass everyone?
He was as lean and forbidding as ever. More so. It was all she could do not to step back, but she didn’t. She simply looked at him, her eyes wide.
“It’s not every day that one is introduced to one’s own wife.” He spoke quietly, far more quietly than Pip, whose voice was a startled squeak.
“You mean you know each other?”
There was a moment of silence.
“Hush, darling,” said her mother with a rather vague look at the other Thompsons, an agreeable smile on her kindly face. “Let’s go through to the dining room. And we must open another bottle of champagne.”
But Pip wouldn’t be quelled. “You look at her as though you think she’s changed.”
Claire tried to smile. His eyes were fixed on hers and he seemed both fascinated and slightly puzzled.
“Your hair,” he said. “It’s slightly different.”
“Is it?” Pip was smiling from one to the other, her eyes sparkling with curiosity and pleasure. From the rest there was polite silence. Polite but expectant. Claire knew she would have to answer.
“I hope you don’t dislike it.” Her hair had been long, a schoolgirl’s length. Anything she’d said, any elaboration, would have been the merest shot in the dark.
He was watching her, his eyes inscrutable. She was shocked, as though hit by a sudden totally unexpected blow between her ribs, and to hide her embarrassment she pulled at the hem of her jacket, nervously and with cold fingertips.
“It’s wonderful. I’ve seen clouds like that. At sunset.” His tone had a convincing quality, as though he’d seen her that morning and had been reluctant to leave her. “Your eyes are the same extraordinary blue.”
She knew she was blushing; in front of an amused audience. It wasn’t enough that without being exactly handsome he was so overwhelmingly physically attractive. He also had to be so casually charming. Then, mercifully, he smiled and gave his attention to Margaret, who was standing on his further side.
Claire found that she was listening to affectionate apologies about Pip from Jane Thompson. She willed herself to attend, to pay real attention. Perhaps some leading questions would keep the conversation away from what she was beginning to think of as her secret past, an idea which amused her in spite of her unnerved condition.
“Forgive our seeming surprised. Grant was asked…” Abruptly, Jane gave up; her confusion helped Claire to pretend to a smiling calm she certainly didn’t feel, but which seemed to make any sort of explanation unnecessary. It was only when she had accepted another glass of the cool pale clear liquid that she let herself shiver into the tiny bubbles of Margaret’s champagne. She forced herself not to press her fingers too tensely round the narrow stem. She knew that Grant was watching her but she couldn’t manage to look at him.
Something let her act more or less normally. Something remembered, some similarity of feeling from the past that wasn’t quite surprise nor yet a fully stifled alarm. For a second she was
reliving that awful time all those years ago when she’d been taken into the offices of her father’s lawyer. It had been the day following the funeral and she could remember the mottled green walls, the framed drawings. Fiona had been there, and there had been a great many things said to which she had to make
herself pay attention. Normally energetic, but with her mind spinning, she had been doubly confused by the inadequacy of her reaction to the loss of her father and by her inability completely to understand quite what was going on around her. She hadn’t been able to control the waves of lightheadedness which left her as suddenly as they came, and which must have been the cause of the almost visible trembling intermittently shaking her exhausted body. Everyone had been kind enough, but she’d known they were watching her, and watching her as though she might be on the point of breaking down. But rather than being frightened by the idea of such a thing happening she had answered carefully when she was spoken to, staring ahead, her eyes blank.
It was only with an effort that she’d been able to make herself concentrate on what was being said. She’d known instinctively that she was still in a state of shock, but that knowledge had been no help at all in her weak struggle to take in the words of the lawyer, John Carroll. He hadn’t, at the start, been insensitive.
“You are left in a most difficult situation. Both you and your aunt. I know she’s told you the position. I would explain more fully, but the reasons are so technical...”
“I think I would understand.”
He’d broken off as he’d met Claire’s frozen gaze. He hadn’t wanted to suggest she wasn’t capable of understanding. That wasn’t his way. “I’ve told your aunt what I’m about to tell you. Your father’s company has absorbed everything, and they would wish to make sure that you are both able to live . . . that is to say, that you both receive what is in any case deemed to be morally yours. This will mean that you and your aunt can obtain,” he had glanced towards Claire and the silent Fiona, “whatever you need.”
“I’ve got to be married.” Claire’s words had been no more than a whisper.
John Carroll nodded, and both he and Fiona were looking down at their hands.
“What is to stop your client simply paying my aunt a sum of money?”
My client?” Something in her tone had sharpened John Carroll’s reply. There was a pause. “He knows neither of you personally, and has no wish to do so, but should this later become a matter for gossip,” and neither he nor Fiona had looked up, “I think it’s the case that he would prefer to be thought to be providing for a bride of no more than twenty, than, as it would be assumed, and you force me to speak plainly, a mistress of almost fifty.”
Claire wasn’t too shocked not to wonder to what extent the speech had been rehearsed. Her father had once depended on Fiona. She’d known that he’d borrowed money. What had he said? That he hadn’t had to ask? She remembered the casual tone he’d used, which had hardened as he had gone on. She saved me financially, he had told her, and she took care of you. Claire, not ten years old, hadn’t known what the first words had meant, but she’d remembered being taken care of, her shoes being tied and her mittens being put on. There’d been a string through her sleeves. She’d cried for her mother and pressed her nose against the window of a strange waiting room and Fiona had cried too, her head bent as it was now. She had no idea of doing anything to harm her father’s sister, and felt nothing at all as she looked from one face to another and made herself ask what she wanted to know.
Margaret Thompson smiled encouragingly and patted Claire’s arm. “Come through.”
“Is this anything to do with evading taxes?”
John Carroll looked both alarmed and offended. “Certainly not.” Not, certainly, in the way he had taken Claire to imply. He was doubtful about her, with her father so recently dead, and this entire
financial mess. He was used to dealing with other lawyers, not with young girls, and he looked for support towards the silent Fiona.
“Please, Claire, I need this money.” Fiona’s voice had held a desperate note that was beyond question. “Otherwise you would not be asked to do this.”
“Must I meet him?” Claire couldn’t take in what was happening. When she tried to think about what was being said her breath caught in her throat. Her mind blank, she heard her own faint gasp. “Or should I write?” She looked down at her hands, then across towards her bag, searching for it blindly as though she was about to translate her words into action. She said again, “Do I have to meet him?”
John Carroll looked as though he were finally doubting her sanity. “How else . . .” He seemed almost lost, but then he understood. This had been a strain for everyone, after all. This girl was just eighteen. “Neither before nor after. You’ll be able to return to your school immediately and what you wish to do in the future will entirely for you to decide on your own account. At no time will any pressure be put on you to do anything.”
Claire could register only the sick pallor of her aunt’s shadowed face. There was the sound of movement in the corridor; someone had entered the room, and the interruption brought Claire back to some sort of reality. She caught at the strap on her bag and a second later was staring first at the scattering of her belongings on the thick carpeted floor and then into the eyes of the man who has handing to her the small wallet in which she kept her various identity cards.
“Thank you,” Claire managed. She knew she was being summed up, and by the expression on the face of the tall newcomer she had been unsparingly judged. “Without these I couldn’t have got into the library. Or the . . .” Her voice trailed away, and to her horror she felt tears come into her eyes. Frozen by something unspoken between the two of them she had put the wallet back into the bag into which Fiona had swept the rest of her things.
John Carroll coughed as though momentarily confused. “You are, and will remain, entirely free to follow whatever . . .”
But Claire’s mind was with her reckless father. ‘For you,’ he had told her, ‘I want things to be different.’ Claire had laughed at that, and let him plan her future. He’d presented her with so many alternatives, such wonderful possibilities, all with the best teachers and finest training, and all for her to choose what she, Claire, wanted. Now all this was to be made watertight, separated from the company. And all Fiona’s assets too, such as they were. That was important.
“There’s no compulsion about this. No coercion. But if you want things to go the way your father wanted, you’ll let yourself be persuaded to agree.”
“If that’s true . . .”
“That this is what your father would have wanted? If I doubted that I wouldn’t be here. As it is, you can still say no. This is a contract, and for a time you’ll be bound by it.”
“My aunt is relying totally on me.” That was plain, and Claire had spoken evenly and clearly, and across the room she saw the half closed eyes flicker. Claire could read only a cold impatience and what amounted to, she thought, a controlled dissatisfaction, but whether this was with her or the circumstances she couldn’t tell. From somewhere there was a thin pulsating electronic note, and the silent stranger stood up, inclined his head briefly in Claire’s direction, and left the room.
“Leave her out of it for the moment. Think that you’ll be prevented from marrying anyone else. For now at the very least.”
Claire almost laughed. For half a second the clouds had lifted. Then they descended once more.
“Please say I’ll agree.”
Instantly Claire was most powerfully aware that she had done what had to be done and that no more was required. Her aunt’s relief almost penetrated the peculiar shell from within which her niece was numbly acting out, what she hoped were correct responses. She looked to where the other man had been sitting, but the chair was empty.
She married him two days later in the register office closest to her father’s house, which was already advertised for sale.
Everything went exactly as John Carroll had planned. Claire went directly to a music summer school where she worked through the vacation, on gaps which had emerged at her college interviews months before. A feeling of being cut off lasted until the autumn. She had nursed her frozen grief in the corridors of her college buildings. Fiona wrote a long letter of heartbroken thanks in which she had begged Claire to let things remain as they were for at least the foreseeable future, and Claire had given up any idea of extricating herself too rapidly from her new situation. She could, after all, live as though none of the recent events had actually happened. It was only then that she was able to ask herself why she had agreed to be married to a man she didn’t know, and who had given no hint that he ever wanted to so much as see her again. Self‑defence, she had thought, mixed in with self -interest. I did it to make the future easier. She didn’t spare herself. She didn’t excuse herself with reminders of the deep shock only so recently gone, or reflections on Fiona’s genuinely precarious situation.
Then somehow from her new perspective things had seemed different, as though a mist had lifted in warm sun, or a sharp breeze had driven a threatening cloud from an otherwise bright blue sky. Nothing she’d been told had been untrue. Quite the reverse, and she’d been right to do what she did. It was funny only now to realise that with that decision something inside her had shrivelled and died.
Claire blinked. She was back in the lovely pink and cream room of strangers and listening amazed to her husband’s voice: To a conversation in which she had no part.
“It was some years ago and as far as I can remember she was quite unsuitable.”
Were they talking about her, and in front of her, as though she weren’t there, or if not quite that, as though she wouldn’t mind? And she mustn’t mind, or for a second let her feelings show. Or, even worse than her feelings, her stupidly nervous reaction.
“How did you lose her ‑ assuming of course that you did?” Pip was laughing, one perfect hand indicating the way through to the dining room, her bright eyes sparkling at Grant.
“I’m not sure I should tell you.” He looked straight at Claire and for a second she thought he wasn’t going to say anything more. She held his gaze, suppressing the fear that caught at her throat whenever his eyes met hers. He was at least six feet and looked very fit. And was undoubtedly very strong. She swallowed. But this time it wasn’t panic she was stifling, but some overwhelming surge of feeling which was bringing her dangerously close to giving everything of herself away. But he added, “She found she was financially independent, and that can alter things quite a lot.”
She stood, considered. Better to concentrate on what she was doing, hope her hand didn’t shake as she fought for control. He seemed to check her over, as though she were a precious object of supreme and incalculable worth and truly beyond price.
“You’re hearing secrets, Claire.” Pip was laughing, but Grant was suddenly at her side, handing her
first her fine web‑like scarf, then her small bag, and he was searching round as though looking for anything else that might be hers.
She couldn’t bring herself to look towards him. She hadn’t expected this. Her face burned with embarrassment that she could so completely have misread what to him, had been no more than an instinctive need to dominate any woman who presented the sort of opportunity she so unequivocally had.
We’re going through to eat.
As he spoke she half turned. And all but walked into his arms. And more humiliating than her clumsiness, was the knowledge that for a moment she wished she had walked into his arms. That, she resolved, she’d do something about. She pressed her fingers against the fine leather of her tiny purse and made herself breathe carefully and deliberately, and then, suddenly seeing herself from outside and finding herself ridiculous, she was able to smile and sit down where she was placed.
Claire glanced around the room, which was pleasantly decorated in shades of cream and pink, an unlikely combination to her eyes but which nevertheless, worked. After the brightness of the hall, all gold and white, the lighting seemed subdued to the point of near obscurity; across the room several guests were standing near the chimney piece and she made her way in their direction. A young woman had got up from where she had been sitting, and hearing her voice all the others turned round, three men and another young girl. “My dears, this is Claire Wilding, who has come back to deal with her aunt Fiona’s affairs.”