Read Wildflower Hill Online

Authors: Kimberley Freeman

Tags: #Fiction, #Contemporary Women, #Family Life, #Romance, #Historical, #20th Century, #General

Wildflower Hill (6 page)

Her eyes darted around. She
would
be seen. The matron would send somebody back to find her. Henry swept his arm around her, hurried her up toward the car.

Inside, she dripped into the seat while the rain pounded on the roof. Henry didn’t start the car. Rather, he turned to her and fixed on her with his gray gaze. Her pulse was hot and thunderous. She dared not speak.

“Run away with me,” he said. Was she imagining it, or did his breath smell like gin?

“What do you mean?” But it was already too late. He’d said the words she longed to hear, had not even dared to imagine.

“I’ve telegraphed Billy, in Australia. He’s going to find me a job.”

A wave of dizziness.

“We can be together.”

“Your wife . . .” she said, struggling for air.

“I don’t love her. I love you. I love our child. She’ll never find us. I’ve organized a berth for us on a cargo liner leaving from London in eight days. I’ve forty pounds in my pocket. Will you go with me? Now? To London?”

Outside the squally rain eased. Beattie gazed at him, thoughts flitting across her mind: of letting Cora down after she had done so much to help, of moving so far from her home, of never seeing her parents again . . . But none of these thoughts settled because, in the deepest well of her spirit, she wanted to go with Henry. And that desire overrode everything.

“Yes,” she said. “Let’s go.”

Evening closed in on the windows of the little hotel room in Bayswater. Beattie watched the street for Henry; he was late. And every moment he was late, she wondered if she was doing the right thing. It was not right, surely, for her to lose faith in him the moment he was out of her sight.

In the next room, through the thin walls, she could hear someone whistling “Bye Bye Blackbird.” The cheerful tune
was at odds with the chill of the room, the approaching dark, the pressing sense of caution in her heart.

Tomorrow they were off on a cargo ship that had enough space for two passengers and not even a steward to tend to them. Henry would have to do some cleaning to pay for their passage. They were to travel via India and would not be in Hobart for eight weeks.

Eight weeks at sea. In the moments when she wasn’t tired and overwhelmed with doubt, it seemed an adventure. But now it was hugely, horribly daunting.

The promises Henry had made her! Eternal love. Raising their son together (he was sure it was a boy, a little Henry). A new life in a new world. They would pose as husband and wife. She would cease to call herself Beattie Blaxland and would henceforth be known as Mrs. Henry MacConnell. She would bear babies; he would work hard and bring home money. They would have a little place of their own and grow old together.

But there were too many false notes in this symphony of his imagining. He would be working with Billy Wilder. His wife may track them down. And he hadn’t found himself able to make love to her pregnant body.

“It’s nothing,” he’d muttered, gently turning away her advances. “You look different, that’s all. Not my Beattie. When you’ve had the child, it will be the same again.”

Had Henry not come for her, she would still be in Morecombe House, waiting like all the other girls to give birth and give away the child. She curled her hand around her belly. Why could she not escape this terrifying ambivalence? One
moment she wanted Henry, the baby, the new life. The next moment she did not. She simply wanted this to have never happened.

But it
had
happened.

There he was, striding casually along the street. He’d been finalizing the arrangements for their journey and picking up a bag full of roomy dresses for her from a friend of Teddy’s in Paddington. Beattie had nothing but what she had fled the beach in, and it wouldn’t fit for much longer.

He glanced up at the window, saw her watching for him, and lifted his hand in a greeting. No smile. That wasn’t Henry’s way.

She simply couldn’t doubt herself, not now. She had made her decision, or rather, her heart had made it for her.

Tomorrow the journey would begin. Tomorrow there was no looking back.

FIVE
 

Emma: London, 2009

 

I
was running late, but I supposed by now that Josh was used to it. The rehearsal had ended right on time; I’d dressed and grabbed my handbag from my locker. I’d started out with such good intentions from the Shaftesbury Avenue studio—don’t stop to look at anything, don’t stop to buy anything—but up on Euston Road, I’d been recognized.

“Excuse me! Excuse me!” A toffee voice behind me, growing closer.

I stopped and turned.

A middle-aged woman and her awkward preteen daughter were hurrying up to me.

“Hello,” I said.

“You’re Emma Blaxland-Hunter, aren’t you?” the woman asked, smoothing her shirt as though preparing for esteemed company.

“I am. I’m very pleased to meet you.”

The woman glanced at her daughter, then back to me. “This is my daughter, Glenys. She loves to dance. Do you have any advice for her? She wants to be just like you.”

“Mum!” Glenys exclaimed, as mortified by a simple thing as only a twelve-year-old can be.

This was the point where I should have smiled politely and backed away, offered my apologies but claimed to be terribly busy, and so on. But I couldn’t. Gran always said to share the good times and they would last forever. London had been the city of my dreams as a child. To live and work here, exceling in my field, was an honor, and to be welcomed with such enthusiasm by its residents was something I never grew tired of. I wasn’t naturally good with people, especially children, but it was only twenty minutes out of my life. So, while the traffic roared past and the long summer afternoon wore on, I talked to Glenys, gave her some tips, danced with her on the footpath as puzzled commuters hurried by on their way to King’s Cross or St. Pancras. Glenys shed her awkwardness quickly, became shiny-eyed with excitement. Finally, I autographed the back of an old envelope for her and encouraged her to keep dancing.

“Thank you so much,” Glenys said, pressing the envelope against her chest.

The mother nodded appreciatively. “It was such a pleasure to meet you. I’ve long been a fan of your grandmother’s brand, you know. There must be something in the blood with the women in your family. Such creativity, such drive.”

I bit my tongue so I wouldn’t say “You haven’t met my mother,” and turned to be on my way. Late now. Quite late.

Even so, I arrived at the restaurant before Josh. Our reserved table waited, and I sat at it, feeling daunted by the sharp edges of the folded linen napkins and the posh quiet.
Josh was born into privilege; for me it had come only lately, and I still felt like an impostor sometimes, waiting for the tap on the shoulder, the polite “You shouldn’t be here.”

Ten minutes passed. He still hadn’t arrived. This was unusual. I’d been living with him in our roomy rented apartment in Chelsea for six months, and he lived his life like clockwork. The alarm went off—he got up! Not like me, hitting the snooze button over and over, clinging to the last thin shard of sleep until I heard him putting on his shoes near the front door and guilt finally prompted me to rise. If he said he’d be home at six, then at six he’d be home: no later, no earlier. If anything beyond his control held him up—and there was little beyond his control—he’d call and . . .

My phone! Did I even have it switched on?

I rummaged in my bag. I hated the damned thing, but Josh had insisted on it. I barely knew how any of its functions worked, and 90 percent of the time, I forgot I owned it. Dozens of calls were usually piled up on my voice mail every week. Sometimes I just ignored the tiresome task of listening to them all; it was time taken away from more important things.

My hand closed around it . . . Four missed calls. I was thumbing through the functions, trying to remember how to retrieve my voice mail, when I heard the door to the restaurant open, briefly letting in a blast of traffic noise. I looked up, knew it would be him.

He smiled. Oh, that smile. It had been the start of everything. A smile that hinted at the man beneath the polished surface, at primal urges and passions balanced against
immaculate manners. I’d never been much good at men until Josh. I’d had boyfriends, of course, but I had a record of picking the ones with big dreams and no way of making them come true: would-be artists and aspiring rock journalists. Josh was ambitious and razor-sharp, with a job in a stockbroking firm and a family of terribly old money. The love that had bloomed under my ribs for him was fierce.

But there was something different about his smile tonight—some wariness, something held back—and I found myself on my guard.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” he said, sitting down and gesturing to the waiter.

“It’s fine. Now I know how it feels,” I joked.

He didn’t laugh, didn’t even seem to have heard me. He beckoned the waiter over; we ordered wine but said we’d take a few more minutes to decide on meals. He laced his fingers together and looked at them for a moment.

“Good day?” I asked.

He looked up. “My mother called.”

“Oh?” His family had moved to Spain a year ago; I’d never met them. “Everything okay?”

“Yes. Yes.” He glanced around again. He was nervous about something, that was for sure. “They’re all coming up to Paris for a week. End of October. My mum, my dad, my sister. They want us to meet them there.”

“Great, I . . .” My mind was spinning through my diary. Damn, where was Adelaide, my PA, when I needed her? What was I doing in October? Would
Giselle
be over? But here was Josh, asking me to meet his family. A sign—a clear sign—that
he was thinking of more permanent arrangements. A week in Paris with him would be lovely. We’d never been away together. I’d always been too busy. Then it occurred to me: casting for the Christmas season. I couldn’t miss it.

“Would we have to go for the whole week?”

Irritation crossed his brow. “Most people have holidays, Emma. It isn’t unthinkable.”

“It’s complicated. I’m on contract. I’ll need to make sure I have another contract lined up for when it’s finished. In this business—”

“You can’t have a break. Yes, I know, you’ve told me this before. But you
need
a break, and I
need
to introduce you to my family.”

“Need to? Why?”

“Because they’re my family.”

“You haven’t met mine.”

“They’re in Australia. And I can guarantee that if they were just across the Channel for only a week, I’d make the effort to come and meet them.”

“Look, Josh, don’t be upset. I’ll check with Adelaide; she has my diary. If you can give me the dates, I—”

To my surprise, Josh stood up, fists clenched by his sides. People at the neighboring tables glanced up sharply; he realized he was creating a scene and sat down again. Leaned forward and, obviously keeping his anger in check, said, “This cannot go on.”

By now I was growing annoyed. He was overreacting. “I think it’s reasonable that I should be able to look at my diary before committing to anything.”

“Before committing to
me
?”

I shook my head. “What are you asking me?” I felt as though we were playing a game and I didn’t know the rules. It was so unlike Josh to be unreasonable that I suspected darker motivations. It was almost as if he wanted to find fault with me. “Where has all this come from?”

“Do you know what I want from life, Emma?” he demanded.

“Of course. You want . . . to do well at work and . . .” I trailed off. Did I
really
not know what he wanted from life?

“Marriage?” he said. “A family?”

“You’ve never spoken of it.”

He exhaled sadly. “I have. You just haven’t listened.” He looked me squarely in the eyes and said, “Do you want those things, too?”

“Maybe. One day.”

“You’re nearly thirty-two.”

“Plenty of time.” What was that constricted feeling in my chest? “Lots of dancing to do first.”

Josh ran his fingers through his hair, took a deep breath, then said, “I’m sorry. This relationship isn’t working. I want to end it.”

A bolt of electricity slapped my chest, and the world became sharp-edged. A vacuum, a long silence. I was afraid to speak, in case I said the wrong thing.
Not working?
From my perspective, it had been working just fine. And so that was the word I said. “Fine.”

He cocked his head, a brief moment of anger crossing his brow. He thought I didn’t care. But I did. I had just been
shocked into silence. People always misunderstood me. I just didn’t know how to say the right things.

Josh, regathering his efficient self, ruled out a long, messy goodbye. He picked up his keys and phone and stood. “I’ll head off. I’ll book a room at the Berkeley tonight, and I’ll nip into the apartment to collect my things tomorrow while you’re at the studio.” He reached for my hair, but I flinched away. “I’m sorry, Em,” he said softly, in the intimate voice I had grown to love. “I really am. But you’re not the girl for me.”

I wanted to shout. To upend the table. To kick him so hard in the groin that his face turned blue. But I did none of these things. I was too visible: I was Emma Blaxland-Hunter, prima ballerina with the London Ballet. Granddaughter of the Blaxland Wool empire. I carried the family’s reputation on my slight shoulders.

He left. I waited five minutes and left, too, ignoring the curious stares in my wake.

I refused to believe that Josh wasn’t coming back. Certainly, the following day he’d moved out his clothes and toiletries and CDs while I was at rehearsal, but he hadn’t taken any of the potted plants on the terrace that he’d so lovingly tended. I was confident he’d return, so I didn’t call him. I wanted him to call me. He owed me an apology. A big one.

The summer days dragged on. I longed for the dark of winter. But instead the days lingered, a bright light shone on my uncertain heart. The heat just added to my misery. At
least back in Sydney the houses were designed to cope with hot weather, to let the air flow through. Here, every building seemed designed to trap the stuffy warmth.

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