Comparative Strangers(6)

By: Sara Craven

She’d been warned to expect this, but it was still a shock to hear the words on his lips.

She said, ‘Are you saying if’s my fault that you couldn’t stay faithful—even for a few weeks?’

‘It’s nothing to do with faithfulness, as such,’ he dismissed impatiently. ‘I just happen to have a very high sex-drive, and this look-but-don’t-touch thing of yours has been driving me up the wall. If I’d had you, darling, all the Clares in the world couldn’t have lured me away. Can’t you understand that?’

‘And if you’d really loved me as I thought, then it couldn’t have happened, either,’ Amanda said tiredly. ‘I don’t think we’re even talking about the same things. I’m sorry, Nigel, but I’ve stopped trusting you, and I can’t marry a man I can’t trust.’

He said, ‘Darling, you can’t mean that. I’ve apologised. What more can I do?’

There’s nothing.‘ Tears were threatening again, and she lifted her chin. ’I’d just like you to leave, please.‘

Nigel was staring at her, as if he could not believe his ears. When he spoke, his voice sounded hoarse. ‘Now, listen, you little bitch! You’re not throwing me over like this. I’ll…’ He stopped abruptly as the kitchen door swung open with a small creak, and Malory walked into the hall.

He said dispassionately, ‘I think for once in your life you’re going to have to take “no” for an answer, Nigel. Why don’t you go?’

Nigel’s eyes narrowed as he looked from one to the other. ‘Well, this is all very cosy,’ he said tightly. He turned a glittering look on Amanda. ‘No wonder you were so well informed about the lovely Clare, darling. So, old Mal came whingeing to you, did he? I wondered why you’d just happened to turn up at precisely the wrong moment today.’

She was about to protest that he was wrong, that it hadn’t been like that, but realised in time that the truth might lead to explanations about the real reason behind her trip to Calthorpe that she would much rather keep secret, and her courage failed her.

She said, ‘That doesn’t matter now. Nothing matters. Just go—please.’

‘Leaving you to weep on each other’s shoulders? How very touching,’ Nigel said mockingly. ‘Like two ice-cubes meeting in a fridge. My God, you two could be the pairing of the century—the Virgin and the Stuffed Shirt!’ He sent them both a blazing look, then turned on his heel and strode to the front door. The whole cottage seemed to shake as he slammed it.

Amanda thought, I’ll remember this moment until the day I die.

She felt the pain uncurling, beginning to tear at her again, and heard Malory say gently, ‘Are you all right?’

Proudly, she raised her head. ‘Yes,’ she said.


Amanda said, ‘Why did you come back?’

‘In actual fact, I never went away.’

They sat facing each other across the kitchen table.

Malory went on, ‘I simply drove my car round to the back lane, and walked up through the kitchen garden.’

Amanda said stonily, ‘I asked you to leave. I thought you had left.’

He gave her a weary look. ‘Yes, I know, and you don’t need a minder, and you’re no longer suicidal. But that wasn’t all of it. I’d gathered you intended to give Nigel his marching orders, and I wasn’t sure how he’d take that. I wanted to make certain there was no—rough stuff.’

Colour rose hotly in Amanda’s face. That’s an abominable insinuation to make!‘

Then I withdraw it unreservedly,‘ he said calmly. ’Nigel would have taken your dismissal on the chin, and left like a lamb without my unwarranted intervention.‘ He paused. ’Wouldn’t he?‘

Amanda bit her lip and didn’t reply. At last, she said curtly, ‘Hardly very dignified, skulking in someone’s kitchen. Supposing I’d come in and found you?’

He shrugged. ‘We’d be having this conversation then, rather than now.’

‘You think you have an answer for everything, don’t you?' she said crossly.

He shook his head. ‘On the contrary. But I have had the advantage of knowing Nigel for the past twenty-six years, which gives me an insight into the way he’s likely to respond to any given situation’ Another pause. ‘Which is why I don’t think you should be alone tonight.’

‘My God!’ Amanda’s brows lifted contemptuously. ‘You really believe in putting the boot in, don’t you? What do you imagine he’ll do? Come back and rape me?’

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