A Banquet of Consequences(8)

By: Elizabeth George


She’d been charmed by it all because, truth to tell, he was very good at what he did, and she’d been filled with questions about how he decided what to make of what he found. He dipped a needy hand into her font of admiration. There were people in the shop, but he wanted to rid the place of them so that he could give Caro his full attention. He stammered and blushed and was determined to hide from her what his face was blazing: abject desire that could not be fulfilled.

She’d stayed till closing. They’d gone for a drink. They’d spent three hours talking of this and that and all he could remember of that evening was his heart pounding so hard that his eyeballs were pulsing and his bollocks were aching with desire.

At her car, she’d said how much she liked him, how he listened to her with interest, and how she felt completely safe with him. “Which is very odd, as I barely know you,” she said. “But I have a very good feeling about you and—”

He kissed her before he could stop himself. Animal lust or whatever it was, he simply had to feel her in his arms. To his surprise, she welcomed the kiss with her lips parting and her body fitting closely to his and not a murmur of protest when his hands slid from her waist to her soft, full bosoms that rested heavily in his two palms.

He felt he might actually black out with wanting her. He managed to get control of himself only because they were on a public street. He released her, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand over which he stared at this lovely creature and tried to think how to apologise, how to explain, how to go on with her as he wished to go on.

She was the one to speak. “I shouldn’t have . . . I shouldn’t have . . .”

“No. It was me. It was the drink and you looking so bloody gorgeous standing there and—”

“It’s that I’m married,” she said in a rush. “The boys at the theatre with me . . . at the panto . . . They’re my sons. And I feel . . . What’s wrong with me that I would want to see you again when I have no right . . . And I wanted you to kiss me just now. I can’t explain it except to say how different you are from . . . Oh Lord, I must go. Really, I must go.”

She struggled to unlock the door, and he saw how badly her hands were shaking, so he took the keys from her and unlocked it himself. She turned to him then and said only, “How I wish . . .” but then she was gone.

He’d had no chance to say that it didn’t matter a whit to him if she’d lied about nephews, if she’d not mentioned a husband, if she—in fact—had three legs and two heads. What mattered was the word together. He was in love before he even knew the names of her sons.

And now, seventeen years along, he loved her still. He stared up at the building where Will was suffering, and he recommitted himself to her, despite their occasional difficulties. He recommitted himself to the boy as well.

It was because of Will that they had left London for Dorset, selling up everything they owned in order to purchase a business about which Alastair had known exactly nothing at the time. Baking, he’d thought, was the province of women, or so it had been in his childhood home. But this was a professional bakery, a thriving concern with a house on the property into which he could move Caroline and her boys. So he’d bought it; he’d employed its previous owner to teach him all he could about working with flour and yeast and salt and sugar and all else that went into breads, rolls, yearly hot cross buns, cakes, and other confectionery. Years into it now, he had seven shops in the county, and if the life of a baker was exhausting with its ungodly hours and its ruptured sleep, he’d been able to provide for his family.

Caroline had her hands full with the boys, especially with Will. Alastair only hoped that today in that flat with Will gone round the bend as badly as he’d ever witnessed, Caroline was able to wring a miracle out of the poor lad’s madness. If she couldn’t do that, they’d have to send for help or cart him off to hospital. Neither prospect made the promise of peace.

His mobile rang. He grabbed it up from the console between the van’s seats and said, “Is he in order now, luv?”

But it wasn’t Caroline, although he heard a woman’s voice. She said, “Alastair, are you quite all right? I’ve had a feeling all morning that you’re in a bad way.”