Comparative Strangers(5)

By: Sara Craven

But, meanwhile, the countdown seemed to be proceeding, and she hauled herself rapidly out of the cooling water, blotting the excess moisture from her body before tugging on her robe and knotting its sash firmly round her waist.

Malory had reached ‘Two!‘ when she flung open the door and confronted him.

She said, ‘I don’t need a minder.’ She sounded altogether more uptight than she’d intended and, as his brows rose, made haste to modify her approach. ‘Malory, this afternoon I went slightly crazy. I don’t quite know what happened, but I do know that it’s not going to happen again.’

‘So will I please go and leave you to your own devices,’ he finished for her.

Amanda flushed. ‘Well—yes.’

He studied her for a moment, his face expressionless. Then he said, ‘Just as you wish’ and, turning, went downstairs. She was brushing her hair in the bedroom when she heard his car drive away, and drew a breath of profound relief.

She couldn’t deny that he’d been very kind, but it irked her that it should ever have been necessary. She had behaved like the top hysterical idiot of all time, and that was quite bad enough, without having Malory Templeton observing the whole performance as if she was some specimen for dissection.

Of course, he’d had an emotional set-back of his own, although he’d seemed to take it pretty much in his stride. Amanda put down her brush. If she was honest, she decided, she couldn’t altogether blame Clare for chasing Nigel. He had a glamour that Malory totally lacked. Malory might be rich, and be the brains behind Templeton Laboratories, but in other ways he was pretty much of a nonentity. In fact, she found it difficult to recall exactly what he looked like. But what did that matter, she asked herself impatiently, when almost certainly she would never be obliged to see him again?

Nigel arrived an hour later. Amanda hadn’t heard his car, but the two imperative rings at the doorbell were his trademark and, reluctantly, she went to answer his summons.

Face and voice subdued, he said, ‘Hello, darling. Are you going to let me in?’

She stood silently aside to admit him to the hall.

His blue eyes surveyed her wryly, then he said, ‘Well, say it, love. Scream at me, hit me, tell me what a bastard I am. You’re perfectly justified to call me anything you want.’

Amanda was thankful to hear her own voice so steady. ‘What’s the point of calling you names? It won’t change a thing. I don’t know why you’ve come here, Nigel, but…’

‘Isn’t it obvious?’ he interrupted passionately. ‘I’m here because I love you, Manda. Oh, I know that must be hard for you to credit, after what you saw today, but it’s true all the same. This—Clare— doesn’t mean a thing to me. We had a few drinks last night—and everything snowballed.’

‘What was she doing there in the first place?’ Amanda asked quietly.

‘At Calthorpe?’ He shrugged. ‘Search me, love. Watching the closing stages of the rally, I suppose.’

She said, ‘But she was Malory’s girl, wasn’t she?’

Something flickered in his eyes, then he shrugged again. ‘They may have been seeing each other— who knows? Mal’s private life is a closed book to me, and I doubt whether he opens it very much himself, either. After all, he’s hardly a turn-on for any woman, in bed or out of it.’

The casual cruelty of it made her wince in swift distaste.

‘You shouldn’t say things like that about your own brother.’

‘Half-brother,’ he corrected, and she remembered picking Malory up on the same point—a lifetime ago, it seemed now. ‘But we’re not here to discuss Mal’s sexual proclivities, if he has any.’

‘Then why are we here?’ Amanda asked wearily.

‘To talk out this stupid mess, then put it behind us for ever,’ he said intensely. ‘For God’s sake, Manda, we have too much going for us to allow one idiotic slip on my part to come between us. After all, it’s you I want to marry, not some silly little slag.’

She heard herself say, ‘It’s not as simple as that…’ and heard yet another echo from her conversation with Malory.

‘But it is, or it could be if you’d let it.’ Nigel took a step towards her, his face darkening a little as she backed away. For a moment, a sharp tension enwrapped them both, then he relaxed deliberately, giving vent to a little sigh.

‘So, what do you want me to do?’ he demanded resignedly. ‘Plead with you? Grovel? Go on my knees? I will, if that’s what it takes. But just remember, Mandy, all this would never have happened if you’d been less of the icy little virgin.’

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