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To make matters worse, the phone rang at that moment. Grabbing it up on the second ring, she immediately realised her mistake and wished she had gone into the kitchen and picked up the extension in there. It was difficult enough to remain somewhat civil to Marc without Brad staring at the back of her neck.

‘Am I truly forgiven?’ Marc asked for the umpteenth time.

Sara considered letting her temper go and telling him that she would never forgive him if he didn’t stop the flowers immediately. Her intuition, however, warned her against this line of attack. His behaviour indicated that he would only find some other way of attempting to bribe her. Besides, she had to admit that it was flattering to have a man express his desire to see her in so flamboyant a manner. It would have been marvellously exciting if it was Brad who was sending the flowers. But it was not, and she had to come to some agreement with Marc before his attentions became an unbearable embarrassment. ‘I’ve told you several times that you’re forgiven,’ she replied.

‘Then you will have dinner with me?’ he repeated his bargain.

Glancing over her shoulder, Sara caught Brad’s expression of disapproval. Suddenly the image of Monica Fallon flashed into her mind and in a moment of defiant, jealous anger, she did the one thing she had promised herself she would not do ... she accepted the invitation. The atmosphere in the room immediately became charged with tension.

‘I thought we would go to the Sunday evening dinner and dance at the yacht club,’ Marc was saying in pleased tones. ‘I’ve been dying to see you in a proper dress. You do own a regular dress, don’t you?’

‘Yes, I own several,’ she responded, forcing her voice to sound light while feeling as if a two-ton weight was pressing against her.

‘Something slinky and low-cut,’ he suggested hopefully.

‘Something demure and practical,’ she returned, wanting desperately to retract her acceptance but unwilling to admit her mistake under Brad’s intense scrutiny.

‘Oh, well, I guess I’ll have to settle for what I can get,’ Marc lamented, then added, ‘But to be perfectly honest, I would have settled for taking you in a gunny sack if necessary. I find you so very exceptional.’

Sara remained silent, a lump building in her throat. Why couldn’t Brad be the one who found her so very exceptional? Instead he preferred Monica Fallon, with her great beauty and even temperament.

‘I’ll be by to pick you up at six-thirty,’ Marc continued.

Chiding herself for even thinking of Brad, Sara’s back stiffened as she said with forced cheerfulness, ‘I’ll be ready.

‘I thought you had better sense,’ Brad growled even before the receiver clicked into place.

‘You said you wanted me to put a stop to the flow of flowers,’ she reminded him bitingly.

For what seemed like an eternity but was, in reality, only a couple of minutes, he studied her in cold silence. Then through clenched teeth he said, ‘I’m going for a walk,’ and slammed out through the front door.

The moment he was gone, a wave of terror swept over Sara. Pride, the fear of appearing foolish, nothing, could keep her from running after him. As she fell into step beside him, he raised a questioning eyebrow.

‘I didn’t think you should go walking alone,’ she said defensively. Then as his expression became black, she wished she had made even a dumb excuse rather than telling him the truth.

‘You’re not my bodyguard,’ he snarled. ‘I thought I’d made that very clear.’

‘And you aren’t my big brother,’ she retorted, lowering her voice as they passed a couple of tourists who were wandering along the quaint side street.

Slowing his pace so that she didn’t have to jog to keep up with him, he said in quieter tones, ‘No, I’m not, but if I were I would take you over my knee and spank you.’

Throwing him a hostile glance, she would have liked to have parted company with him, but her instincts would not allow her to desert him. The feeling of terror had passed as soon as she had joined him, but she knew it would return if she left his side. 'Could we go back to the house and eat dinner before it gets cold?’ she suggested tightly.

They had come to a corner. It was obvious he had planned to cross the street and continue towards the park. Hesitating, he glanced towards her and with a resigned sigh nodded in agreement. Changing direction, he began to retrace his steps back to the house. ‘Don’t you ever think before you act?’ he demanded in a low grumble, breaking the prolonged silence between them.

‘I used to think before I did anything,’ she muttered, then added, ‘But lately, I seem to be suffering from a mild form of insanity, and it appears to be getting worse rather than better.’

‘Once people discover that Marc Fallon made an extensive purchase of your paintings and then they see you out with him, they’re going to think you’re his mistress or, at the very least, that you’re using him to further your career,’ he persisted grimly.

She knew he was right and was almost ready to admit it when an uneasy prickling sensation on the back of her neck caused her to glance towards the street. A white Lotus passed them and she recognised Monica at the wheel. Jealousy sparked a fire of defiance. They were almost back at the house and she quickened her pace as she said sarcastically, ‘That should prove interesting. Once people find out that I’ve been your housekeeper and that Marc has decided to become my self-appointed sponsor, they won’t know who to link me with. Of course there’s always the possibility they’ll link me with both of you. That would be enough to gossip about for years. Just think, in two weeks time, without ever having slept with a man, I’ll have become one of Charleston’s most infamous femme fatales!’

Kicking the door closed as they entered the house, Brad grabbed her by the shoulders and spun her around. ‘This isn’t a joking matter!’

‘Who said I was laughing?’ she retorted, twisting out of his grasp and stalking off towards the kitchen.

The evening did not improve. Brad remained stoically disapproving, while Sara vacillated between going out with Marc and calling him and breaking the date. It wasn’t that she wanted to go out with him. In fact, she disliked the idea more and more with each passing minute. However, her practical side knew that attempting to break the date would be an act of futility.

Marc’s tenacity, if his behaviour today could be used as a measure, was quite strong. He would, no doubt, park himself on her doorstep, which would only lead to further hostilities. As she saw it, the most reasonable solution was to go out with him this one time and make it perfectly clear that she was not interested in seeing him again.

 

CHAPTER SEVEN

On
Sunday morning, Sara attempted to regain some normality in her life by following her usual routine. She went to church with Helen, Steve and the children and ate brunch with them afterwards. The effort, however, was not a total success. Ida’s name came up several times, and although Steve and Helen refrained from alluding to Sara’s present housing arrangement in front of the children, an air of strain existed among the adults.

Finally, when the two women were alone in the kitchen washing the dishes, Helen’s reserve broke and she asked bluntly, ‘What do you intend to do? Steve mentioned that you promised him you’d be out of Brad Garwood’s home by the end of the week. Is that still your plan?’

‘I’ll be out by the middle of the week,’ Sara assured her, adding apologetically, ‘But that may mean moving in here with you and Steve for a few days or even a few weeks.'

'We’ll love having you,’ Helen said, her tone expressing relief. ‘But I’ll have to put you in with Joanie. Ida will have to have the guest room. The children get on her nerves and she needs a place to be alone.’

‘And the rest of the family needs a break from her too,’ Sara added what Helen was too polite to say and the other woman smiled in agreement. ‘Did she say how long she would be here before going on to Florida?’

‘No, but I suspect she’ll stay at least two weeks.’

‘I admire the ease with which you’re taking all this,’ Sara sighed. ‘To tell you the truth, the thought of all of us being sequestered in the same house for two weeks with
the possibility of Brad Garwood’s name coming up and the children spilling the beans is enough to give me the hives!’

‘I think the only viable solution is to tell her right off that you were the man’s housekeeper for a few days,’ Helen stated firmly. ‘Joanie was quite taken with him and regularly mentions the picnic out at The Pines. Also, for some reason, she keeps trying to explain that you’re living at Brad’s house but not with him. The only problem is that sometimes it comes out backwards, and I wouldn’t want that version to be Ida’s first knowledge of the situation.’

‘Agreed,’ Sara nodded, adding wistfully, ‘I’m certainly glad one of us is able to think straight these days.’

‘I’ve noticed that you haven’t exactly been yourself, lately,’ Helen commented, pausing while putting a cup away to take a good long look at her sister-in-law. ‘You know, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen you like this before. You’ve always been so in control of your life and your emotions. But lately you’ve been edgy and maybe even a bit unstrung.’

‘True,’ Sara flushed.

Helen pursed her lips in thoughtful consideration while she continued to study her sister-in-law. Then breaking her silence she said, ‘It’s Brad Garwood, isn’t it? You’ve fallen for him.’

‘I’m hoping it’s just a passing insanity,’ Sara admitted grudgingly. ‘And please, whatever you do, don’t tell Steve.’

‘You have my word on that,’ Helen promised, then asked in a concerned tone, ‘And how does Brad feel about you?’

‘Part of the time he treats me like a kid sister who’s in need of a great deal of guidance,’ Sara grimaced distastefully.

‘And the other part?’ Helen persisted.

‘Like he can’t stand to have me around,’ Sara muttered, the pain showing in her eyes.

‘Then the man’s a fool,’ Helen declared, giving Sara an encouraging hug.

‘And you’re prejudiced,’ Sara forced a smile. ‘A condition for which my ego is very grateful.’

‘Maybe you’re mistaken about how he feels,’ Helen suggested.

Sara shook her head. 'He’s interested in Monica Fallon.’

‘Steve did mention something about that,’ Helen admitted with a sympathetic frown. 'It was in connection with a ball, if I remember correctly.’

‘I’d rather not talk about this any more,’ Sara requested. ‘Besides, I have to be off. I’m spending the afternoon apartment-hunting. With any luck, you won’t have the entire Manderly clan under your roof at one time.'

'I know you,’ said Helen, her motherly manner becoming strong. ‘There’s more to all of this than you’ve admitted, but I won’t press. Just don’t forget that I’m here when you feel the need to have someone to talk to.’

‘You wouldn’t believe it anyway,’ Sara shook her head sadly. ‘I’m beginning to think of it as a family curse.’ Then before Helen could probe further she left.

She hadn’t told either Helen or Steve about Marc Fallon’s large purchase of her paintings or that she had a date with Marc. It was a cowardly thing to do, but she knew that they would have disapproved and Brad’s disapproval was almost more than she could handle. She didn’t need any added pressure.

Her afternoon’s search turned up two possibilities, but neither of them would be available until the end of the next month.

Brad was sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee and reading the Sunday paper when she returned. ‘Find anything?’ he asked as she came in.

‘Nothing that’s available soon enough,’ she sighed tiredly. ‘Looks like I’ll be moving in with Helen and Steve for a while.’

He nodded his acceptance of this solution, making no further attempt to persuade her to remain in a custodial position in his home. Obviously, he had reconsidered the situation and decided that to remove her completely from his life would be the best arrangement for all concerned.

‘Would you like me to fix you something for dinner before I leave this evening?’ she asked, changing the subject.

‘I’ll be dining with Monica, so that won’t be necessary,’ he replied, only a slight deepening of the green of his eyes betraying his continued disapproval of her date. ‘However, I would appreciate it if you would rebandage my wrist after I shower/ I’m driving and although it feels much better, it’s still a little weak.’

‘Of course,’ she agreed, a wave of anxiety sweeping over her and making her feel suddenly extremely exhausted. ‘If you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll go and rest for a while before I dress. It’s been a long day.’

‘Perhaps, if you’re so tired, you should consider staying at home this evening,’ he suggested.

For a moment she considered making him a bargain... she would remain at home if he would remain home too. Then realising how ridiculous that would sound, she simply threw him a disgruntled frown and went into her room. Lying on the bed, staring at the ceiling, she wished she had the nerve to ask him not to go out. Then in a wave of honesty, she was forced to admit that she wasn’t certain if her anxiety was because she truly sensed that he would be in danger or because she knew he would be going out with Monica Fallon and her jealousy was affecting her.

A slow tear trickled from her eye, running down her cheek past her ear to melt into the pillow beneath her head. She had always believed that one day she would find a man she could love, it had just never occurred to her that he might not love her.

‘So much for fairy tales,’ she muttered, forcing herself off the bed and into the shower.

She had just finished blow-drying her hair when Brad knocked on the bedroom door. Pulling on a robe in place of the towel in which she had been sitting, Sara stepped into the kitchen.

He was dressed in slacks and a short-sleeved white cotton shirt. A thick shank of brown hair, still damp from his shower, hung down across his forehead. Without thinking, she reached up and brushed it back, then flushed at the forwardness of her action as his eyes darkened.

Clearing her throat nervously, she said, ‘This will be easier if you’ll sit down.’

Following her suggestion, he seated himself at the kitchen table and as she pulled a chair near and sat down too, he extended his arm in her direction.

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