This is a story for love. This amazing romantic love story starts with Jon. Jon Markham approached his romantic dalliances with all the planning and strategy of a military maneuver.
He left nothing to chance, and this evening was no exception. He’d borrowed his sister’s apartment ( Maggie having considerately taken a week’s early holiday ), and he’d spent the afternoon preparing his rather special exclusive-to-him paella. The wine was cooling, the lights were suitably dimmed, and he had taken a great deal of care in selecting the dreamy, romantic music already poised on the record player.
In short, his campaign plan was coming along nicely. He took time off to have a quick drink and recognized within himself that wave of feeling that was becoming too familiar. Boredom? Depression? A sense of wondering if it was all worth the effort?
He supposed the pattern was now just too well worn. He saw his quarry, liked it, stalked it, and depending on the circumstances, became entangled or not. Mostly the latter. In his job as a fashion photographer, he spent his entire life among the most incredibly beautiful women. Some appealed, some were harder to woo than others, but nowhere, as yet, had he met anyone who had ever begun to inspire a solemn commitment, a do-or-die awareness that this was it.
And Jon found it all vaguely disturbing, because, truth to tell, despite his voguish approach to life, deep down within him there lurked a romantic.
Jon downed his drink and, he hoped, his irritation at his present line of thought. It was becoming too frequent, too insidious, this perpetual self-analysis, this inability to enjoy what life offered.
Tonight the lovely Francesca was swimming into his net. Francesca was the latest golden girl in the rapid turnover of top cover girls. She was, Jon supposed, quite stunning. She was superb in front of the cameras, with white, even teeth, a perpetual suntan, and long, long legs that seemed to go on forever. He’d made his play carefully and as subtly as he knew how, and yesterday she’d said yes to a dinner date tonight.
But after five minutes of euphoric satisfaction at his success, Jon had felt his triumph strangely diminish, so he had plunged into tonight’s campaign plan and with even more determination than usual.
He glanced at his watch. Ten minutes to zero. He checked the paella, which was simmering with aromatic promise, and glanced at the table, attractively set for two. Then the doorbell shrilled, and Jon raised his eyebrows. She was early by ten minutes. Always a good sign.
His smile of welcome faded instantly, however, as he opened the door. The girl in the hall was about five foot two, with spiky brown hair framing a face that was as pallid as skim milk. Her eyes were enormous in the white wedge of the face and were fixed on Jon’s in what he could only term desperation.
“Maggie!” she said, her voice sounding as though it was coming from way off. “Isn’t this Maggie Mark- ham’s apartment?” And then she fainted, falling against him so that he caught her before she hit the ground.
She was as light as a child, fragile and small-boned, as if she could be crushed by the merest breath of wind.
Her head had fallen against his shoulder, her profile visible, and he looked down at the creamy skin, the pert, upturned nose, the sweet line of the mouth, the long dark lashes feathering her cheeks.
Some almost forgotten recognition scirred in Jon, and he went on gazing into the still face.
And into this charmingly domestic scene stepped Francesca. The perfect mouth emitted a tight smile and she said, “Oh, dear, you double-booked.”
But she was really quite helpful in settling the girl into one of Maggie’s single beds, and she telephoned for a doctor while Jon sponged the perspiration soaked forehead, lifting the bangs that were as soft and brown as a bird’s wing.
He turned to see Francesca watching him from the doorway.
“You’re quite the Florence Nightingale,” she said.
“Who is she!”
Jon stood up and went to join Francesca in the lounge. “I’m not sure,” he said, frowning. “She asked for Maggie, so she’s obviously a friend of my sister’s.” He raised his shoulders in protest. “I’m desperately sorry about all this.”
He observed Francesca’s marvelous hair, profuse and corn colored, and the beautifully cut cream skirt and blouse. He sighed at the waste of it all. “You look wonderful. And the evening will be just perfect once we’ve dealt with our little friend in there.”
Francesca’s smile was tepid, but she went to sit patiently on the settee while Jon paced between the paella and the bedroom.
The girl was sitting up when Jon slipped in for the fourth time. Her eyes looked bigger than ever, dark brown with flecks of amber, and there was defiance in them, courage alongside the wariness, and Jon Mark- ham liked that.
He sat on the bed and smiled. (Not his spreading- the-net smile, but the one he used for his family and stray dogs and Tom-and-Jerry cartoons.)
“Well, here’s a to-do,” he said, sounding vaguely like something out of Dickens.
Tricia Harriott wondered how long she could manage to sit up without fainting again, but found the effort too much, so she allowed her head to sink back on the comfortable pillow and made a gigantic effort to speak.
“Look, I’m Tricia Harriott, and you are Jon. You obviously don’t even remember me. I was at school with Maggie and I came to stay with you once.” She attempted a smile for a brief moment and then sighed. “I’ve traveled down from Scotland, but I was stupid enough not to book a hotel in advance, and they are all crammed with visitors. Some sort of exhibition. Not a bed to be had. Then I thought about Maggie, but I didn’t realize just how ghastly I was feeling. I walked from the station, thinking the fresh air would do me good. But it didn’t….”
Jon saw the pallor take over again, spreading over her face so that every vestige of color drained away. He put the wet cloth on her forehead and was just about to call the doctor again when that worthy man arrived.
Jon plied Francesca with martinis and apologies while they awaited the diagnosis. It was an extraordinary situation. Here he was, with his plans crumbling to dust around him, and yet he felt no great devastation, no real disappointment. He was, in truth, extremely concerned about the Harriott girl, who looked like a waif and stray from some fairy tale.
Tricia Harriott. He sat up, as the elusive memories flooded back. Of course! Maggie’s little school friend who had stayed with them years ago. She’d been about fourteen and had looked younger, and Jon had had to kiss her at the party during some fatuous game like forfeits. And he, feeling terribly grand and a bit of a roué at seventeen had kissed her full on the mouth. Everyone had laughed, apart from the girl herself, who Kad looked at him with enormous, reproachful eyes.
Jon surfaced again to see that Francesca’s glass was empty and that her immaculate nails were tapping a staccato rhythm on it. So he hastily got her another drink and was then summoned into the bedroom.
The doctor was cheerful and matter-of-fact.
“She has a rather nasty strain of flu. She’s actually over the worst now, I imagine.” He looked down at his patient. Her lashes were feathering her cheeks again and her mouth was looking a little nearer to tears. The doctor drew Jon outside.
“I really don’t know how she managed to get here at all in that state. She’s completely exhausted. Is she your girlfriend?” His gaze lighted on Francesca on the settee. He looked back to Jon with a kind of reverential respect. “You chaps do seem to keep yourselves busy. But to get back to our patient, it really would be best if she could stay here for a couple of days. I’ll pop in again tomorrow, but she must stay in bed.”
His glance flickered to Francesca, then back to Jon. “She’ll need plenty of hot liquids, and keep her warm. A couple of days should see her on the mend.” He wrote out a prescription, waved a hand uncertainly at Francesca, and left.
It was definitely not one of his more successful evenings, Jon decided. By the time he’d nipped out to collect the prescription and give the first dose to the very sleepy, flushed-looking Tricia, the paella had somewhat given up the ghost. This could also be said of Francesca, who toyed with her food and answered Jon’s questions with a monosyllabic lack of enthusiasm. Not that Jon felt like talking much, any- way. It was decidedly cramping making overtures to Francesca, knowing that the prostrate Tricia was just beyond the bedroom door.
He gave up after a while, switched off the music, turned up the lights, and halfheartedly arranged to repeat the evening on Saturday. He saw Francesca down to the parking lot, waved her off, and went back to make an onslaught on the dishes.
And there, above the scrape of crockery and cutlery, he heard the unmistakable noise of female sobbing. Nothing dramatic, merely a subdued, suppressed sound, as though she was crying into her pillow.
Which was exactly what she was doing. Jon prodded her gently with his finger, and she turned over, looking up at him, her eyes luminous in the darkened room.
“Come on!” he said, sitting on the side of the bed. “It isn’t as bad as all that. You’ve had some medicine, and the doctor says you’ll be fighting fit the day after tomorrow.”
He saw her lovely mouth pucker, as she shook her head in denial. “It’s not that! I feel such a fool, butting into your evening and driving your beautiful friend away so early. You’re not telling me that your sessions usually end as early as this-only when moronic females faint all over your doorstep and then play gooseberry for two days.”
There was silence and Jon Markham was aware of a most extraordinary feeling, warm and tender, like shared laughter or childhood promises made and kept. It was the solid stuff of commitment and caring, and it warmed him so much that suddenly the next two days stretched ahead like a glorious, untapped adventure.
He looked at her elfin face, and his eyes lingered on her beautiful mouth. There would be no need of planned military maneuvers with this girl. There would be no need to impress. There would be fun and laughter and the die-hard standards that had formed his childhood and upbringing. He found it all marvelously exciting.
“I feel that we both need a strong cup of tea,” he said. “Then masses of sleep for you. I’ll phone your parents in the morning.” He hesitated. “There’s no one special I should be calling?”
Tricia smiled her first real smile of the evening and shook her head. “No one at all.”
The moonlight had crept into the room, and her eyes were as brilliant as stars. Jon smiled down at her.
“I do remember you, Tricia Harriott,” he said quietly. “In fact, I wonder if I ever really forgot you.” And he bent down and kissed her, briefly, gently, undemandingly.
In the kitchen, he boiled the kettle, made the tea, and reflected happily on the never-ending magic of things.
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