Authors: Marguerite Kaye
Justin gazed blankly at the fire. ‘I had a sort of a breakdown. I was there for six months. I hardly remember the first few weeks.’ He turned back towards her, his face flushed.
‘You can’t possibly be ashamed, Justin.’
‘My father is. He can’t talk about it. He won’t have it mentioned. Not that I would. Hardly dinner party conversation is it? Oh, did I tell you about the day I turned a gun on some fellow officers and then went doolally and had to be banged up,’ he jeered.
For God’s sake, what you must have been through…’
‘Me, and hundreds of thousands of others, and most of them are functioning perfectly well.’
‘I suppose your father pointed that out to you?’
‘And one of the officers on the Court Martial panel, who happened to have served under my father in Burma. I owe it to him, my being packed off so quickly. I should be grateful. And besides, it’s true.’
‘I doubt that very much. I suspect most of the men who served in the war are still carrying it around in their heads. Some of them working all hours or partying all hours or whatever it takes to forget…’
‘…and some of them too taken up with their own private hell to do anything but remember,’ Vera said, with a meaningful look. ‘What I’ve been through is nothing,
compared to you. To them. It makes me furious, it makes me absolutely livid sometimes, the injustice of it. All that suffering and all that bloodshed, and expecting all those perfectly ordinary men to do perfectly extraordinary things, and then when it’s done, expecting them to go back to their lives as if nothing had happened.’
‘Not like me. I don’t – as you’ve pointed out. As Dexter has pointed out too, if you must know. I don’t live any sort of life. But yes, all those other women, they do.’ Vera jumped to her feet, her fists clenched. ‘You have no need to feel ashamed, Justin. It’s an absolute outrage that you do. Your father – dammit, what is he thinking of!’
‘He’s an old-fashioned man.’
‘You can’t possibly mean to excuse him!’
‘I understand him.’ Justin winced. ‘I don’t see him though. We are quite estranged.’
‘Because you had a breakdown?’
‘Because my breakdown led me to see things differently. To see the world differently.’
‘I should hope so. The world is changed beyond recognition.’
‘Yes.’ Justin looked weary, and unutterably sad. ‘That’s rather the point, for my father. Changed beyond recognition and very much for the worse. He too would turn the clock back, but not for the reasons I would. He – we argue. He makes me so angry. All that he is, it’s what I was, and that’s what caused it. People like him. People like I was, once. Before.’
‘You didn’t cause it,’ Vera said, ‘though you had no option but to help clean up the mess. What you did, what you suffered – it’s a miracle you were not not in a straitjacket afterwards. Oh God, were you?’
Justin smiled faintly. ‘No. I was at least spared that indignity.’
Vera swore. ‘I can’t imagine.’
‘I think I’d rather you didn’t. As I said, I’m not proud of it.’
‘You should be.’
‘No Vera, you really don’t understand. I was completely deranged for a while. When I wasn’t in a stupor I was ranting and raving. I didn’t sleep unless I was drugged.’
‘Like I was. I do understand, a little. What happened? How did you get better?’
‘Talking. That’s what they do at Craiglockhart, they believe you should talk about it.’
‘For me, but I was one of the lucky ones.’ Justin’s smile was twisted. ‘I was angry, just as you are, at the waste of it all. The injustice. I still am, but I have ways of coping with that now.’
He shrugged. ‘Writing it down.’
‘Like a diary?’
He was beginning to look deeply uncomfortable. ‘I’m sorry,’ Vera said, ‘I sound as if I’m interrogating you.’
‘No, it’s simply…’
‘Enough,’ she said, nodding. ‘I meant it when I said you should be proud, you know, and not ashamed. I think to come out of the War unscathed you would have to be mad. It’s the sane ones who suffer.’
‘That’s certainly a different way of looking at it.’
‘By which you mean, yes, I can accept that for everyone else but me,’ Vera retorted. ‘Do you think I was weak for breaking down? Because I do. I’m ashamed. Still. Deeply ashamed, though if my father had been alive, I doubt he’d have rubbed my nose in it.’
‘It was different for you.’
‘Because I’m a female? Because I was a civilian?’ Vera demanded. ‘What about all the other men in Craiglockhart, was it different for them too?’
‘That was below the belt.’
She gazed at him unflinchingly. ‘But true.’
He said nothing. She couldn’t bear the bleakness on his face, and was sorely tempted to hammer her point home, but she knew from bitter experience that would have no effect. So she waited, and eventually he stopped staring sightlessly into the distance, and his shoulders relaxed. She smiled at him. ‘Do you feel better?’
‘I do now.’ Justin smiled up at her. ‘You look absolutely delightful.’
Unbelievably, she had quite forgotten she was naked. Vera felt the flush spread from very low down. ‘My gown,’ she said, ‘I should…’
‘I’d rather you didn’t.’ Justin got to his feet. Naked. And obviously aroused.
The flush spread. Up and down. She stared, fascinated, at the thick curve of his erection. ‘What would you rather I did instead?’ she asked.
‘That’s for me to ask and you to answer,’ he said, pulling her towards him. ‘It’s your turn to dream.’
The bathroom was pink marble, the black veins in the stone reflected in the highly polished floor tiles. The bath was sunken, with a recessed arched mirror on the main panel beside it, and a very modern-looking shower complete with gold fittings at one end. There were two sinks with another large arched mirror above them, and quantities of huge fluffy towels. The flooring was warm underfoot. The water was piping hot.
Vera turned on the spray fitting of the shower. ‘I wish I had one of these at home,’ she said. ‘Like a waterfall, only rather warmer. Are you joining me?’
‘Is that your dream?’
She laughed. ‘No, I’m sticking with my original one of hoping to prove myself insatiable.’
‘I’m up for that.’
‘I can see you are,’ she said, eyeing him shamelessly.
Justin stepped over the low edge of the bath to join her under the torrent of hot water, pulling her up against him, her back to his front. In the mirror, she could see them, one sinuous shape, her curves accentuated by his lean, hard muscle, water dripping down between her breasts, crystal droplets in the hair of his chest, and the cluster that covered her sex. She wriggled, enjoying the thick length of him caught between the cheeks of her behind, enjoying the reflection of her pleasure in his face in the mirror. Vera tilted her head back, letting the water rinse away the last of her mascara, closing her eyes, the more to relish the slip and slide of her skin against the man standing behind her.
The Chatsfield was nothing if not luxurious. Justin picked up the huge sponge which lay ready on the shelf under the mirror, and used the thick bar of soap to lather it. Still holding her against him, he began to work it over her body. Her breasts. Circling, slipping it over, round, working the sponge and his fingers on her nipples to tease them into hard peaks. His mouth on the nape of her neck. His shaft, pressing against her. His thighs on the backs of hers. Water. The sponge circled down, trailing suds over the soft skin of her belly. The heat of the shower, the slick, slide of their skin, the slither of the soap, made the heat build inside her too. She watched in the mirror, their silhouette tantalizingly hazy now with the steam, showing clear only where the droplets streaked down the glass. The sponge between her legs. His fingers in the sponge and inside her. Sliding backwards and forwards, the lightest, feather-like touches. Just enough to tease, not enough to satisfy.
Vera leant forwards, clutching at the gold-plated handle, wondering fleetingly who had thought of this accessory for the bathroom, whether it was designed for safety or for just this. She couldn’t see the mirror now, but she didn’t care. The sponge fell into the marble base of the tub as Justin’s fingers parted her, stroked her, and the deep-rooted thrumming inside her presaging her climax began.
She bent further over. She felt the hot, velvet tip of him nudging at her, entering her as she came, his arm tight around her waist as he began to thrust into her, catching the wave as her orgasm broke to ride it high inside her, making her pulse tight around him as he pounded hard, his breathing fast and shallow, withdrawing at the final moment with a harsh cry.
Water swirled around them. Vera clung to the thoughtfully-placed metal handle. The pink marble walls streamed condensation. Justin’s cheek was pressed into her shoulder. She could hear him panting, feel his breath on her ear. They stood there for so long that the water ought to have run cold. But this was the Dream Suite of the Chatsfield. The water did not run cold.
They lay together on the huge bed. It looked like a four poster designed for an Egyptian pharaoh. Four gold-painted pillars, the canopy formed with some filmy white material which also formed the faux-drapes at each post. White sheets. Banks of pillows and cushions, a black velvet quilt.
Justin turned onto his side, propping his head up with his hand. ‘You look as if you were made for this room,’ he said, twisting a silky strand of her hair around his finger.
‘I think that’s the point of the colour – or lack of it. It’s designed to look as if it was made for whoever stays here.’
‘Other guests.’ He said it flatly. He had forgotten there would others. He found he didn’t like the idea, which was stupid.
‘Sooner rather than later.’ Vera pointed at the bay window. The black and white striped curtains were pulled wide. The sky was already turning from black to grey. ‘I shall see in the dawn, as usual.’
The phrase jarred on him. It bothered him how much he was enjoying lying here in bed with her. He liked it a little too much, and it would be over a little too soon. ‘Just another night on the tiles for Miss Milton-Kerr, albeit with a different companion,’ Justin said sarcastically. ‘Do you still miss him?’ he asked.
The question sounded abrupt. His voice sounded harsh. Accusatory. He meant it to.
Vera frowned. ‘Dexter?’
She sat up. Her eyes, in the dawn light, were a very dark blue. Her lashes, even without the heavy coating of mascara, were ink-black.
‘Unbearably at first. Then, after I – when I started working as a VAD, I made sure I had no time to miss him.’ She bit her lip, frowning. ‘I don’t know what I feel now. Guilty?’
‘Because of tonight?’
‘Because I’m alive and he’s not.’
Are you still in love with him?’
‘You can’t be in love with a dead man, Justin.’
‘Is that why you’re here with me, because you can’t be with him?’
‘No! How can you ask that?’ Her frown deepened. She began to examine her nails, spreading each hand. Four of the fingers were picked quite clean of polish. ‘I’m not sure I can explain why I’m here with you, but I do know that it has nothing to do with my husband. I wanted you. I thought that was obvious. I haven’t wanted any man for a long time. I told you that. You made me realise how tired I’ve become of the part I’ve been playing. You made me feel that this flesh and blood was actually my body, that it could give me pleasure, that it wasn’t just a means to another end. I’m here because I’ve been lonely – another thing I didn’t realise. I’m here because there was something about you from the start. Kindred spirits, your words. There are a hundred reasons, or maybe none. I don’t know, must there be an explanation, Justin? Can’t it simply be what it is?’
‘But what is that, exactly?’ Justin pushed her away, and sat up on the edge of the bed. ‘It’s not real, none of this. It’s been lovely, darling,’ he said, cruelly mimicking her own voice, ‘but it’s nearly morning, time to end this little fantasy and wake up to reality.’
Vera looked quite bewildered. ‘Why are you being like this?’
‘Like what? It’s what we both agreed. One night only, and then we go our separate ways.’
‘I know what we agreed,’ she retorted sharply. ‘I’m not going to renege on it, if that’s what’s bothering you.’
‘It’s not,’ he said, realising with a sickening feeling that it was a lie. His lie, not Vera’s. He wanted her to renege. He wanted her to protest, because he could not. He didn’t want her to go. But she had to go, because that was what they had agreed. Only he didn’t want her to go now, when there was still time…
For what? More sex. He’d thought it would be a safety valve, a release of pressure. Once or four or five times, whichever, would be enough. But he knew it wouldn’t be. Every time he looked at her he wanted her. Again. More. He couldn’t afford to think like that when there was no possibility of again or more. None. He was damaged goods. How could he have forgotten!
Vera had moved to the other side of the bed. Her eyes were wary. ‘You want me to go,’ she said. Not a question. She slipped off the bed, grabbing one of the black silk robes that hung on the back of the door and throwing it on, tying the belt tightly. ‘Are you sorry?’ she asked, ‘do you regret it?’
She was glaring at him with those big eyes. Her hands were curled into fists at her sides. He felt like a complete bastard. He felt raw. He felt exposed. He felt. That was the problem. It was as if Vera had peeled away a layer of skin from him, or shot her way through his armour or… ‘Dammit, stop looking at me like that!’
‘Like what? What the hell is going on in your head, Justin Yorke?’
‘I don’t know!’ Justin grabbed a damp towel from the chair and wrapped it around his waist. ‘You need to go,’ he said. ‘I need to – I have things to do. Nothing has changed. Just because tonight was – nothing has changed.’ He was aware of her looking at him. He was aware that he was pacing, muttering, but he was even more aware that he had to get this straight. Sorted. ‘There’s no alternative,’ he said, in reply to his own un-asked question. ‘Think about it! When was the last time you felt – anything. Not anger. Anything else. Think about it, Justin.’