by Penny Jordan
She knew the moment the boastful words left her mouth that they were a mistake.
‘You bought it for yourself?’ The pity in his eyes made her long to cause him a corresponding pain, but caution prevailed. What did it matter what he thought? After this weekend she would never see him again, and yet even though she closed her eyes and feigned sleep she kept seeing over and over again the pity in his eyes.
‘We’ll soon be reaching the Forest.’
The quiet words were pitched low enough to rouse her without waking her if she had been deeply asleep, and Kelly lifted her head, glancing through the window, entranced to see the massed bulk of the Forest ahead of them.
‘Would you like to stop for lunch?’
‘Sue is expecting us,’ Kelly told him curtly. She didn’t like the way he kept insisting on taking control. She was the one in control. Ever since Colin she had had a dread of anything else.
His shrug seemed to indicate that it meant little to him, and Kelly felt rather like a sulky child being humoured by a tolerant adult.
‘Tell me a little more about your friends,’ Jake instructed as the new spring greenery of the Forest closed round them. ‘How long have they been married? Do they have a family? I’ll have to know,’ he added when he saw her expression. ‘If they’re to accept me as a genuine friend of yours they’ll expect me to know something about them.’
Grudgingly admitting that he was right, Kelly explained about Sue’s miscarriage and consequent depression.
‘Umm, but that still doesn’t explain why you felt the need for a male companion. It obviously isn’t to boost your reputation with your friend or score off against her in some feminine way.’ He reduced speed, and glanced thoughtfully at her with cool grey eyes. ‘Something tells me there’s something you’re holding back.’
‘I’ve told you all you need to know,’ Kelly denied, uncomfortably aware of the assessing quality of his gaze and the hurried thudding of her own heart. She couldn’t admit the shameful truth; that she was using him as a barrier to hide behind, because for all her much vaunted independence, there was no other way she could get it through Jeremy’s thick skull that she was totally uninterested in him.
Sue and Jeremy had an attractive brick-built house not far from Ringwood. The Mercedes pulled up outside it shortly after one, and as Kelly climbed shakily out of the car, the front door opened and a plump, pretty blonde girl came rushing out, enveloping her in a warm hug.
‘Kelly, love, you look fantastic!’ Sue beamed up at her. Barely five foot two, her lack of inches was something Sue constantly bemoaned; that and her tendency to put on weight.
‘And this…’ she began appreciatively, glancing from Jake to Kelly.
‘Jake,’ Kelly introduced hurriedly. ‘I hope you don’t mind…’ Her voice trailed away, high colour touching her cheekbones as Sue grinned delightedly, ‘Mind? Kelly, you know me better than that. But why haven’t you told me before? I know you must be someone special,’ she confided to Jake, oblivious to Kelly’s agitation and embarrassment. ‘Kelly would never have brought you down here otherwise. I can’t remember the last time I’ve ever known her spend a weekend with any of her… Ah, here’s Jeremy,’ she broke off as the front door opened again and Jeremy emerged.
‘Darling, come and say hello to Kelly and Jake,’ Sue smiled, and Kelly heard the note of uncertainty in her voice; heard it and shivered with apprehension when she saw the expression in Jeremy’s eyes.
‘Kelly.’ He reached for her, his eyes hard. ‘I suppose I can’t kiss you properly with your friend here looking on.’ He contented himself with a light peck, but Kelly was conscious of Jake’s interested scrutiny. He was too astute, she admitted uneasily, and there was something about the way he watched her that she found unnerving. Perhaps he was an out-of-work actor simply studying human reactions, and yet there was something in the look he gave her as Jeremy released her and turned to shake hands with him that told her his interest had been specific rather than general.
‘Come on inside,’ Sue encouraged. ‘Lunch is ready—a cold buffet meal, that’s all, but I’ll take you upstairs to your room first.’
Their room! Kelly froze and heard Jeremy saying smoothly behind her, ‘I’ve finally managed to persuade Sue to join the twentieth century and to realise that consenting adults don’t want separate rooms.’
He had done it deliberately. Kelly could see it in his eyes. She wanted to protest; she felt like a trapped animal and knew that Jeremy was waiting for her to retract, and then, astoundingly, Jake was slipping an arm round her waist, drawing her back against his body. She could feel the even beat of his heart against her back, her body enveloped in a protective warmth that made her eyes sting with tears as he lowered his head and murmured against her hair, ‘What delightfully tactful friends you have, my love! I confess I hate wandering about in the darkness looking for the appropriate bedroom door!’
LUNCH was a nightmare during which Jeremy alternately humiliated Sue with his deliberate cruelty to her and cross-questioned Jake with a condescension that made Kelly wince.
Jake himself seemed impervious to his host’s insulting manner, parrying his questions with a calm ease that Kelly couldn’t help admiring, almost against her will. Her heart was in her mouth when Jeremy asked Jake what he did for a living, but Jake didn’t hesitate for a moment.
‘This and that,’ he murmured with an easy smile, and from Jeremy’s scowl Kelly knew that he had gathered from Jake’s careless comment that he was implying that he was wealthy enough not to have to work.
From then on the two men treated one another with cool hostility, and Kelly was glad to escape into the kitchen on the pretext of helping Sue with the washing up.
‘That was a lovely lunch,’ she complimented her friend. Privately, now that the initial glow of excitement occasioned by the arrival had gone, she thought her friend looked far too pale and listless.
‘Do you think so?’ Sue grimaced. ‘I think Jeremy believes I should have made more of an effort, but we seem to be entertaining constantly at the moment.’ She pulled a face. ‘I feel so tired, Kelly,’ she complained. ‘I’ve tried to tell him, but he just doesn’t understand—about anything.’
She gave a muffled sob, causing Kelly to put aside the teatowel and take her in her arms. Her private opinion that Jeremy was a creep and that her friend would be better off without him was something she couldn’t voice, so instead she comforted her by saying slowly, ‘You’ve had a bad time recently, Sue, you’re bound to be feeling a bit under the weather. You need a decent rest.’
‘That’s what Dad says,’ Sue agreed shakily, ‘but Jeremy says it’s impossible for us to get away at the moment. Dad has a villa in Corfu, he’s offered to lend it to us for Easter, but Jeremy doesn’t seem very keen.’ Her face suddenly lit up. ‘Kelly, I’ve had the most marvellous idea!’
Kelly’s heart sank as she guessed the words trembling on Sue’s lips, but it was too late to stop them, and to her consternation Jake walked into the kitchen, both hands full of empty plates, his eyebrows raised in query, as Sue burst out impulsively, ‘Oh, and you too, of course, Jake, you must both come…’
‘I was just telling Kelly that my father has a villa in Corfu. He’s offered to lend it to us for Easter—I’d love to get away, but Jeremy isn’t keen. I was just asking Kelly if she’d come with me, but it would be fantastic if we could make up a foursome.’ She pulled another wry face at Kelly and said frankly, ‘In fact I think Jeremy would prefer a foursome.’ Her eyes clouded as she admitted unhappily, ‘He’s grown so distant recently, Kelly, I sometimes think that perhaps…’
‘The only thing you need to think about is getting well again,’ Kelly headed her off, dreading hearing Sue put into words any doubts about her husband’s fidelity.
‘And you will come? Oh, please!’ Sue begged, tears sparkling in her eyes. ‘Both of you must come. I can still remember what it feels like t
o be so much in love that you can’t bear to spend a moment part, believe it or not. You must be a very special man, Jake,’ she teased suddenly, blinking away the betraying tears. ‘I never thought Kelly would allow herself to fall in love again after losing Colin so tragically, but the very fact that she brought you down here proves me wrong, and I can’t tell you how glad I am. He obviously wasn’t the slightest bit deceived by that cool, efficient façade you hide behind, Kelly,’ she teased her friend, but tears still glimmered in her eyes, and Kelly felt a pang of pain for her friend that overrode her own embarrassment. Poor Sue, losing her baby was something she was finding it hard to come to terms with, and Jeremy didn’t help, she thought angrily. Couldn’t he see how much Sue needed his care and reassurance, or did he simply not care?
‘You haven’t told Sue whether we’ll be able to join her at Easter or not yet,’ Jake reminded her.
Kelly flashed him an irate glance. Of course it was impossible that they could. He knew that. She bit her lip, unnerved by the look she saw in his eyes. This man was her paid companion, she reminded herself, and he had no right to be behaving in the way that he was. She bitterly resented his assumption of control, the smooth way in which he had pre-empted her right to dominate their relationship.
‘I…I’m not sure if I can get away from the office, Sue,’ she lied desperately. ‘Can I let you know?’
She hated seeing the disappointment in her friend’s face, but what could she do?
After lunch they went for a walk. The countryside around the house was lovely, but the walk was spoiled for Kelly by Jeremy’s boorish manner towards his wife and his constant references to the financial status of the owners of the properties they passed. She stiffened at one point when Jake murmured softly against her hair, ‘You and Benson ought to get on like a house on fire—you both believe that everything can be calculated in terms of money; the only difference between you is that you have it and he doesn’t. I wonder why he didn’t marry you?’
‘Perhaps because he wasn’t given the opportunity,’ Kelly snapped. ‘Anyway, I was engaged myself when Sue met Jeremy.’
‘Ah yes, of course.’ They had fallen a little way behind Sue and Jeremy, and Kelly hesitated, glancing up into the mocking face above her as she heard the question in the smooth, drawling voice. ‘Colin! Sue mentioned a tragedy…’ He saw her wince and said coolly, ‘Believe me, I’m not prying or consumed by curiosity about your past, it’s simply that I don’t want to make any mistakes.’
‘Very professional!’ Kelly bit her lip when she saw his expression. It was useless telling herself that he had no right to be annoyed; she could tell that he was.
‘Look,’ he grated against her ear, grasping her arm and swinging her round to face him, his fingers bruising the soft flesh of her upper arm with their grip, ‘I don’t know when, where or why you started hating the male sex, nor am I in the slightest interested in your sexual hang-ups, okay? Now tell me about Colin.’
Kelly was too angry to reply. How dared he talk to her like that! she fumed. She would report him to his boss; why on earth had she been landed with him? She had wanted an ‘escort’ who would melt into the background, not this totally male creature who exuded male dominance and insisted on taking control.
‘Well? Or do I ask Jeremy?’ he threatened softly. ‘Something tells me he’d be only too delighted to help me delve into your past.’
‘Colin was my husband,’ Kelly muttered, hating him more with every passing second. What on earth had happened to her much vaunted hauteur? Something about this man shattered all her defences; he was like a steamroller, she thought bitterly, either too hard or too dense to see he was trespassing where he wasn’t wanted, and yet she had the unnerving impression that he knew exactly how much she resented his probing; his determination to lay bare wounds she desperately wanted to cover up.
The gall of the man! She drew in her breath in indignation, stunned into silent shock as his mouth suddenly descended on hers, blotting out the spring sunshine. A kaleidoscope of colours whirled between her tightly closed eyes, her entire body rejecting the male power of him, her mind silently shrieking its bitter resentment. Every muscle in her body tensed within the circle of his arms, her lips a stubbornly tight line of denial, as the warmth of his probed their curves. She opened her eyes, damning him with corrosive hatred, willing him to release her from the humiliation of the subjugation.
‘Take it easy,’ he murmured the words against her mouth. ‘Sue and Jeremy are watching. Unless you want them to think we’re in the middle of a lover’s quarrel you’d better kiss me back.’
‘Go to hell,’ Kelly muttered back, wrenching herself out of his arms and hurrying down the path. Her whole body was bathed in a fine film of perspiration. She felt sick and shaken. She hadn’t been held like that since…since Colin, her mind forced her to admit. It had been a shock, finding herself in his arms like that, knowing herself incapable of breaking free without his tacit permission, and the knowledge had been frightening.
‘Everything okay?’ Sue asked solicitously, when she caught up with them. ‘You look pale.’
Jeremy glared furiously at her and said acidly, ‘Well, well, so the ice has melted at last! I don’t know how you’ve done it, old man,’ he commented to Jake when he caught them up, flinging his arm casually but so firmly round Kelly’s shoulders that she couldn’t break free.
‘Done what?’ Jake asked, his eyes never leaving Kelly’s pale face.
‘Melted the ice maiden,’ Jeremy said maliciously. ‘We’d all begun to think she’d frozen so hard it would take a pickaxe to get through to her.’
‘Jeremy!’ Sue reproached, giving Kelly an embarrassed glance.
‘Oh, it’s all right, Sue,’ Kelly retorted, forgetting Jake for a moment in the heat of her anger. ‘I’m well aware that Jeremy thinks I’m frigid just because I don’t jump in and out of bed with every man I meet.’
‘See how fortunate you are,’ Jeremy said nastily to Jake. ‘Why, I’ll just bet if it hadn’t been for Colin, she’d still be a virgin; rich and innocent.’
She could feel Jake looking at her and knew that her cheeks were hot. How dared Jeremy talk about her like that! Her hands clenched in the pockets of her suede jacket. She knew why he was doing it, of course. He was trying to get back at her for bringing Jake with her, just as he had done when he suggested that Sue give them a double room. Their room! She had forgotten about that. She worried at her bottom lip, and then told herself that she was being stupid. Jake was hardly likely to pounce on her simply because they were sharing a room. Even so… She glanced uncertainly at him, and was rewarded by a quick hug.
‘Kelly can give her money away to charity if she likes,’ she heard Jake drawl convincingly. ‘As my wife, she’ll be supported by me, and not the other way around.’
‘Lucky Kelly,’ Jeremy retorted. ‘Well, if you’re looking for a charity, darling, do look in our direction first. I wish I’d had the good sense to find myself a rich wife.’ The look he gave Sue made Kelly long to demolish him with a few well-chosen phrases, but she had her friend to think of and so merely gave him an ice-cold glare.
Jake was an excellent actor, she had to give him that. That bit about supporting his wife had been truly inspired, and totally convincing. She watched him covertly. He looked convincing. He looked the type of man on whom a woman could depend totally and completely. What on earth was she thinking? He was probably an out-of-work actor, used to playing all manner of parts. She was paying him to appear convincing!
When they returned to the house, Kelly went upstairs to unpack. She had been hoping that Jake would accompany her, so that they could discuss the best way to save them both embarrassment in view of the fact that they would be sharing the room, but instead he remained downstairs talking to Sue, merely interrupting his conversation to smile warmly at her and say causally, ‘Unpack for me too, will you, darling. Alt
hough, thank God, I won’t be needing the pyjamas I packed after all.’
Sue grinned appreciatively. ‘You’re blushing, Kelly,’ she teased. ‘Now I really have seen everything!’
It didn’t take Kelly long to unpack. She hadn’t brought much with her, just the new dress she had bought to change into for dinner, plus a skirt and jumper to wear tomorrow, her underwear and a silk nightgown she had bought on impulse several months before. She eyed it doubtfully as she lifted the soft blue fabric from her case. There was nothing particularly indecent about it, but it was more frilly and feminine than the nightshirts she normally favoured, and now she wished she hadn’t packed it.
When she went downstairs, she could hear Sue and Jake still talking.
‘I’m so glad she’s found someone like you,’ she heard Sue saying, as she paused outside the door. ‘She’s had a hard time since Colin died. I’d begun to think she was too frightened to let herself care for anyone else. Of course, you will know better than anyone else that behind that cool façade she’s…’
Kelly pushed open the door, unable to bear listening to her friend saying any more. She couldn’t look at Jake.
‘Kelly…come and sit down next to Jake and I’ll make us all a cup of tea. Jeremy’s had to go out, but he won’t be long. I’ve invited another couple to join us for dinner. One of Jeremy’s clients. You’ll like them…’
Kelly couldn’t bear the tense silence that followed Sue’s departure. ‘I suppose you enjoyed hearing all that,’ she began fiercely.
‘Not enjoyed, precisely,’ Jake responded. ‘It was certainly enlightening.’ His arm was stretched across the back of the settee, and he started to wind a loose frond of hair from her chignon round his finger.
‘Don’t do that!’ Kelly hissed, jerking away and then gasping with pain as he refused to let her go. ‘Don’t touch me!’