Comparative Strangers(9)

By: Sara Craven

‘That’s a pity.’

He shrugged, ‘That’s the way it goes.’ He looked at her. ‘You’re an only child?’

She nodded. ‘Didn’t Nigel tell you?’

‘He actually told me very little about you, except that you were engaged, accompanied by a reluctant invitation to meet you and your mother.’

Amanda smiled wryly. That was a rather heavy evening. I had the feeling you didn’t altogether approve of me.‘

That would have been very presumptuous of me.‘ He added, after a pause, ’I think I was merely amazed that Nigel had decided to settle down. Also, we’d had a row on the way here. Nigel is due to inherit some shares in the company on his marriage, and he wanted to push matters forward. I had to tell him it couldn’t be done, and he wasn’t very pleased. He thought I should have bent the rules in his favour.‘

‘Could you have done so?’ she asked gravely.

He said, ‘No,’ and there was a silence. Then he said. ‘May I help with the washing up?’

There isn’t any. I simply load the dishwasher.‘ Amanda got up. ’And, as it’s rather ancient and temperamental, it prefers a hand it knows.‘

‘Then I’ll make the coffee,‘ he said promptly. He had beautiful teeth when he smiled, she noticed. ’Don’t look so stunned, Amanda. I’m reasonably house-trained. If you’ll show me where the sheets and blankets are kept, I’ll even make up my own bed.‘

‘It’s already done,’ she began, and paused as the phone began to ring again.

‘Load the dishwasher,’ Malory said. 'I'll answer it.‘

Amanda found that her hands were trembling as she scraped the dishes and put them into the machine.

‘Wrong number,’ Malory said briefly when he returned, but she didn’t believe him.

They drank their coffee in the drawing-room, watching a re-run of The French Connection. Watching Malory covertly, Amanda decided that the violence of the New York drugs scene must be as far removed from his environment as it was possible to get.

‘He’s got a bijou residence where he’s waited on hand and foot by devoted retainers’ Nigel had told her once, derisively. ’And when he’s not at the labs trying to produce a wonder-drug that will cure every known disease, he’s in his box at the opera. Coming into contact with the real world must be a hell of a shock to his system. Fortunately for him, he doesn’t have to do it very often.‘

But today’s events had been the real world with a vengeance, Amanda thought with a little sigh, which she hastily converted into a yawn as he looked at her.

‘You’re tired?’

‘I think I must be.’ It wasn’t strictly the truth, but she was eager to go upstairs and shut her door. The evening had turned into a rather unnerving experience, and it wasn’t altogether due to the crank calls. Sharing this kind of intimacy with Malory was—strange, and she would be glad when it was over.

She had tried phoning her mother earlier, but there was no reply, and she guessed that she and Elaine had gone to the theatre. I’ll have to get through to her in the morning, she thought.

And then, slowly and painfully, she would try to get her life back on to an even keel again—learning to live without Nigel.

She yawned ostentatiously, and got to her feet. ‘Well—goodnight. I hope you have everything you need.’ She tried a smile. I’m sorry I can’t provide pyjamas.‘

‘That’s no sacrifice. I never wear them’ He had risen, too, and was walking over to her. Amanda had kicked off her shoes as she often did, and she felt oddly dwarfed suddenly.

He said quietly, “Goodnight, Amanda, sleep well.‘ And for one brief, troubled moment, she thought he was going to kiss her, and her whole body went into shock at the idea.

She found she was backing away, babbling something incoherent about the spark-guard for the fire, and fled.

She was still awake an hour later when he came upstairs to bed, but he passed her door without hesitating, and she lay in the darkness, castigating herself for having behaved like an idiot in front of him, yet again.

She was just asking herself for the umpteenth time where the harm would have been in a brief, farewell peck on the cheek, and still receiving no satisfactory answer, when she fell asleep.

The crash seemed to shatter the room. For one terrified, screaming moment, Amanda thought the cottage had been bombed, then she made herself reach for the switch of the bedside lamp, realising as she did so that a strong current of cold air was reaching her from somewhere.

As the lamp came on, she cried out. There was a gaping hole in the middle of her window-pane, and a half-brick lay on the carpet, surrounded by shards of broken glass. There were even some splinters on her duvet, she realised, shuddering.

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