Comparative Strangers(8)

By: Sara Craven

‘Having always believed I was all too predictable, I’ll take that as a compliment.’ The phone rang again, and he reached for it, saying curtly, ‘Hello?’

If that’s Mother, she’ll have a heart attack, Amanda thought faintly. But she could hear no outraged squeaks. She looked at Malory, her eyes mutely enquiring, and he nodded. He was leaning against the hall table, looking very relaxed, a thumb hooked into the belt of his trousers. And he conto stand there as minute after minute ticked past.

At last he said smoothly into the mouthpiece, ‘I’m prepared to stand here all night, if that’s what you want.’ He replaced the receiver with a slight grimace. ‘Our caller rang off,’ he said. ‘I think only one can play this particular game.’ He gave Amanda a long look. ‘Well?’

She bit her lip. ‘It’s a crank, I tell you.’

Malory shrugged. ‘Anything you say. Now, how about that drink?’

He followed her into the drawing-room, and watched as she poured a generous measure into a crystal tumbler, adding a splash of soda at his direction.

She said passionately, ‘It isn’t Nigel. It isn’t!’

He lifted his glass to her with an ironic glance. ‘Here’s to loyalty, however misplaced.’

She said, her voice shaking, ‘You really hate him, don’t you?’

He considered that for a moment or two, then said, ‘No.’

‘Then why are you so down on him—imagining that he would do anything as childish as those phone calls?’

‘Because it’s the kind of mischief he used to revel in,’ Malory said, after another pause.

‘In the past, maybe.’ Amanda shrugged that away. ‘But you haven’t lived under the same roof with Nigel for a long time now. He’s changed, He’s grown up. Can’t you understand that?’

‘There was certainly room for some maturity,’ Malory agreed caustically, ‘but his recent behaviour doesn’t show much evidence of it.’

It was infuriating not to be able to contradict him flatly, and Amanda seethed in silence.

Finally she said, ‘Are you sure you’re not just jealous—because the lady you wanted preferred Nigel?’

‘Oh, I’m jealous all right.’ He was smiling faintly as he said it, but Amanda felt a small frisson of something like fear shiver its way down her spine.

‘In fact, I don’t think I shall ever forgive him for it.’

She felt as if the cool, civilised mask had slipped for a moment, and it disturbed her. He had definitely cared for Clare more than she’d realised, she decided, and was brought, reeling, back to the conventional world by his polite, ‘Do you mind if I switch on the television?’

She said hastily, ‘Do—please,’ and beat a retreat back to the kitchen.

It was becoming evident that Malory Templeton was something of an enigma, she realised as she made the vinaigrette dressing for the salad. She had never thought Nigel and his half-brother were over-fond of each other, but now it seemed her erstwhile fiance had made himself a real enemy.

‘This is a charming house,’ Malory commented later as they ate the blackberry ice-cream Amanda ‘ had produced from the freezer for dessert. ’Do you live here all the time?‘

She shook her head. ‘Mostly, I live in London. I share a flat with three other girls.’ She smiled faintly. ‘But I come down here every chance I get.’

‘I’m not surprised. Has your mother been alone for some time?’

‘Yes, Daddy died four years ago of a heart attack. It was—very sudden.’

‘They often are,’ he said. ‘My father died of the same thing, but in his case he had a number of advance warnings—all of which he chose to ignore.’ He sounded rueful.

‘Do you miss him?’

‘Yes, I do,’ he admitted. ‘We weren’t very close when I was a child, but we became friends as I got older’ He paused. ‘Particularly after my stepmother disappeared from the scene.’

‘You didn’t like her?’

‘When she married my father I was prepared to worship her.’ He shook his head. ‘She was quite the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen in my life. But it didn’t take long to discover that she didn’t want my adoration, or any other part of me. However, I even forgave her that when she had Nigel. I’d always wanted a younger brother.’

‘Then it’s a pity you haven’t—a closer relationship now,’ she said stiltedly.

‘There was never really an opportunity,’ he said. ‘Camilla had decided in advance I was going to be jealous of her baby, and would probably try to harm him in some way, so every attempt I made to approach him was regarded with the gravest suspicion. I was shunted away to school as soon as was decently possible, and Nigel didn’t even follow me there. We grew up like parallel lines—close but never meeting. By the time we did get to know one another, it was to discover how very little we had in common.’

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