Comparative Strangers(7)

By: Sara Craven

‘I didn’t say that.’

‘And if I say I don’t want you here?’ she bit back at him. ‘What then? After all, I hardly know you. For all I know, you might be planning to rape me yourself.’

‘How very true,’ he said. ‘What a fascinating night it promises to be.’ There was an icy distaste in his voice which got to her.

She mumbled, ‘I’m sorry. That was—a stupid thing to say. I’m still not thinking very clearly.’ She made herself meet his gaze. ‘But I can’t honestly put you to any more trouble. I—I’m sure you mean well…’ She stopped again. ‘Oh, God, that sounds even worse. What I’m trying to say is, you must have plans of your own for this evening, and I’ll be all right—really.’ It sounded lame, and she knew it, but she wasn’t even convinced herself. She was tense and on edge, emotionally vulnerable. The last thing she needed, or wanted, was to be alone.

She found herself saying reluctantly, ‘Although there is the spare bedroom…’

Then it’s settled.‘ His tone was matter of fact, without a trace of smugness. ’Now, let’s get down to practicalities. Did you leave your keys in the car, or were you planning to jump with them?‘

She gaped at him for a moment. ‘Oh—they’re still in the ignition.’

He nodded. Then I’d better walk down to the bridge and bring the car back, before someone takes a fancy to it. Shall I put it away for you in the garage?‘

It had to be one of the most bizarre conversations she’d ever taken part in! She wondered crazily what he’d have done with the damned car if she had really jumped, then pulled herself together.

‘Er—yes, please.’ She paused. ‘And I’ll make a meal for us.’ Nigel had always been incredibly fussy about food, requiring even a simple steak to be cooked to the exact minute he specified. Perhaps it was a family trait. ‘Have you any particular likes or dislikes?’

He said politely, ‘I don’t think so. Whatever’s going will be fine.’

Neutral could well be his middle name, Amanda thought crossly when he’d gone.

Her mother invariably left the refrigerator stocked as if for a siege, and Amanda extracted some lamb chops and the ingredients for a salad, before scrubbing two large potatoes, wrapping them in foil, and putting them in the Aga to bake.

She wondered whether Malory would expect to be entertained formally in the dining-room, and decided to pre-empt the issue by laying the kitchen table.

She still wasn’t sure why he was staying, or why she was allowing it, but she had a feeling it was going to be a long, awkward evening. Perhaps a drink might ease the situation, Amanda thought, although he’d probably opt for a small, dry sherry. She decided she’d better go along to the drawing-room, and see what there was. As she went through the hall, the telephone rang.

Her heart sank. Mother, she thought. Somehow, she was going to have to break the news that all the wedding arrangements undertaken so far were going to have to be cancelled. She only hoped Mrs. Conroy hadn’t bought her outfit yet.

Sighing, she lifted the receiver and gave the number. But, instead of the excited rush of feminine chatter she’d expected, she found herself greeted by a profound silence. Puzzled, she gave the number again, and jiggled the rest. But the silence continued.

She said rather doubtfully, ‘Hello—can you hear me?’ Still nothing. But it wasn’t a dead silence, she realised. It was very much alive, because she could hear the faint sound of breathing at the other end.

Amanda’s nose wrinkled, and she slammed the receiver back on the rest, just as Malory walked back through the front door. He gave her a surprised look.

‘Is something the matter?’

‘Not really,’ she said tautly. ‘Just a crank phone call.’ She managed a smile. ‘And all in silence, too. I didn’t even manage to learn any useful obscenities.’

He glanced at the phone, his brows drawing together in a swift frown. ‘Well, I know a fair number. You’d better let me answer next time.’

‘Oh, there won’t be a next time’ Amanda tried to sound breezy. ‘Once they realise you’re not going to flip, they try someone else.’

‘You’ve experienced this type of thing before?’

‘Loads of times,’ she lied. ‘Would you like a drink?’

Malory shrugged off his overcoat. ‘Thanks, I’ll have a large whisky.’ He gave her an enquiring glance. ‘Have I said something funny?’

‘Oh, no.’ Amanda swallowed. ‘You’re just— rather unexpected sometimes.’

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