Comparative Strangers(4)

By: Sara Craven



She’d expected to embarrass him, to see him avert his gaze hurriedly. But, deliberately, he allowed his scrutiny to intensify, to linger where her still-damp skirt clung to her thighs.

‘What a disappointment,’ he drawled. The frown had vanished, and the challenge was being returned, she realised, with interest. ‘Like most men, I much prefer stockings.’

She wanted to say, ‘Another chauvinist response,’ but she couldn’t because she was the one who was embarrassed now, knowing that she would stumble over the words. Or, indeed, anything she attempted to say.

The most dignified, in fact, the only course seemed to be a silent retreat upstairs.

In her bedroom, she took a long look at herself in the mirror, and grimaced. She’d dressed so carefor that surprise reunion       with Nigel. Now, the straight cream skirt was stained with damp and streaked with lichen, and she’d scuffed the toes of her new shoes, too.

And her skin was dreadful, she thought with a pang: blotchy with weeping, her eyes red and puffy.

If Nigel was really on his way here, she didn’t want to face him like this. In fact, she never wanted to see him again.

She stripped and put on her robe before crossing the narrow landing to the bathroom. She ran herself a warm bath, adding a capful of Savlon to the water before lowering herself into it.

In spite of the warmth, she found she was shivering. She supposed it was reaction to everything that had happened. She’d set out that day for Calthorpe, as nervous as a kitten, but burning with anticipation at the same time.

‘Love me,’ Nigel had pleaded hoarsely so many times. ‘Trust me.‘

And she’d been prepared to do just that, telling herself it was absurd to attach so much importance to the symbolism of a white wedding—a wedding night. She loved Nigel, she wanted to give herself to him, and her mother’s departure for London, coupled with the few days’ leave allotted to her by her grateful, vacation-bound boss, had seemed to provide the ideal opportunity for her to prove to Nigel, once and for all, that she desired him just as much as he seemed to want her.

He had finished third in the rally, one of his best results ever, and she had rung the hotel where he was staying to congratulate him the previous evening, so she knew his room number.

But the planned surprise had rebounded on her, she thought, wincing, as the pain of his betrayal lashed at her again. She had never loved anyone else but Nigel. And now she never would. Never could.

She had first met Nigel just over a year ago, when the company she worked for had been helping sponsor a rally in the Lake District, and had held a lavish reception for the drivers. Amanda had been roped in to help, making sure that everyone mixed socially, and that the drinks circulated too.

She didn’t know what had made her look up at one point, but it had been to find Nigel watching her from the other side of the room. He had raised his glass in a silent and admiring toast, and she had turned away, blushing and biting her lip, wishing savagely that she had several more years' maturity and a wealth of sophistication to draw on.

When he had made his way to her side, she hadn’t been able to believe it. He was already a name in rally circles—one of its young, rising stars, the papers said, although a few sports writers had commented in caustic terms on his good fortune in having the Templeton money to back up his ambitions.

Amanda had no illusions about herself. She was attractive enough, she supposed, if rather over-slender, with her green eyes, and a mane of reddish-chestnut hair which she kept tied back for work. But she had no wealthy background, nor any kind of star quality to compete with Nigel’s.

But, miraculously, that seemed to be what he wanted. And when, after a few months of wining, dining and dancing together, he’d asked her to marry him, she’d agreed without hesitation, hardly able to credit her good luck. And she’d been living in a fool’s paradise ever since, she reminded herself with angry bitterness.

She was brought out of her unhappy reverie with startling suddenness by an imperative rattling at the bathroom door.

Malory’s voice said sternly, ‘Are you in there, Amanda? What’s taking so long?’

‘I’m having a bath,‘ she called back, remembering too late that she’d forgotten to lock the door, and looking round frantically for the nearest towel.

Through the panels of the door, his voice sounded grim. ‘As long as that’s all. I’m counting to ten, Amanda, and if you’re not out of there by then, I’m coming in.’

She realised he was concerned in case she was overdosing, or cutting her wrists with her own miniature razor, and a tiny bubble of hysteria welled up inside her.

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