Comparative Strangers

By: Sara Craven

CHAPTER ONE





It had rained during the week, and the river was in spate, crashing between its banks and hurling itself at the stone bridge as if it sought to sweep it away.

A torn-off branch from some tree came whirling downstream, carried helplessly along by the angry brown waters. From her vantage point on the bridge, Amanda watched as it submerged, drawn down by some unseen vortex, and her hands tightened on the stones of the parapet until the knuckles turned white.

A few seconds, said the small cold voice in her head, and then—oblivion. No more hurting. No more betrayal, cutting at you like a knife, slashing away at all that was warm and joyous and trusting in your life. Nothing.

The rush of the water, the roar of the wind in the trees, seemed to fill her head like a scream of outrage at the life which had turned against her.

She lifted her foot, searching for a hole, feeling the rough surface of the bridge ripping at her fragile tights, scraping her legs. Panting, she dragged herself up on to the parapet and crouched for a moment, closing her eyes against the swift giddiness which assailed her.

She thought, ridiculously, I hate heights.

Slowly, gingerly, she uncurled herself, and stood up. One step was all that she needed to take, she told herself, swaying slightly. Or perhaps the force of the wind would do it for her.

She felt herself lifted, snatched, and she screamed aloud as she realised she was falling, not forward towards the water, but back on to the bridge again.

From a thousand miles away, a man’s voice, drawling and vaguely familiar, said, ‘It isn’t as simple as that, believe me.’

She said a name in anguished disbelief, but it was lost in the inner tumult consuming her, overwhelming her, and consigning her at last to the dark forgetfulness she had sought.

She opened her eyes dazedly to movement and the noise of a car engine, found that she felt deathly sick, and closed her lids hastily.

Later, she became dimly aware of voices in the distance, and of the softness of cushions beneath her. The same familiar voice said, ‘Drink this,’ and she drank obediently, too weary to protest. Whatever liquid it was, it seemed to run down her throat like fire, but it dissolved away the last of her resistance, and she slept.

She woke to lamplight and firelight, and lay for a few puzzled moments, coming to terms with the fact that she was at home, lying on the sofa in her mother’s drawing-room.

She thought, drowsily, But I went to Calthorpe to be with Nigel. How did I get back here?

Memory hit her like a blow, and she sat up with a little stifled cry, her shocked eyes meeting the cool, level gaze of the man who sat on the opposite side of the fireplace.

She said, ‘You. Oh God, you…’ Then her voice broke, and she began to cry, her body shaking under the impact of deep, gulping sobs.

‘Why did you stop me?’ she wailed between paroxysms. ‘Why the hell did you stop me?’

He got up silently, handed her an immaculate white handkerchief from his breast pocket, and vanished.

Amanda buried her head in the cushions and wept until she had no more tears left. When she eventually lifted her head, he had come back into the room and was putting down a tray, laden with tea things, on to a table in front of her.

He said, conversationally, They say tea is the best thing for shock. I wonder if it’s true?‘

She said huskily, ‘I don’t want any bloody tea! What are you doing here, Malory?’

‘I followed you from Calthorpe,’ he said. ‘I had a feeling you were contemplating something foolish, and I thought I should stop you. That’s all.’

‘All?’ she echoed bitterly. ‘Didn’t it occur to you to mind your own business?’

‘You’re engaged to my younger brother,’ he said. ‘I felt that gave me—a kind of responsibility.’

‘Your half-brother.’

‘If you want to split hairs.’

‘And I’m no longer engaged to him.’

‘So I infer.’

It was that coolly precise way of speaking which had so often needled her about Malory. She supposed it came from a lifetime of analysing things in those damned laboratories of his. But she wasn’t a substance under his bloody microscope—and how dared he be so calm and matter of fact when he knew quite well her heart was breaking?

He poured out some tea and handed it to her. She would have liked to have thrown it over him, to see if that would ruffle that distant poise of his, but instead she sipped the hot brew, watching him sulkily over the rim of her cup. This was only the second time he’d been to the cottage, she realised, and he’d lost no time in finding his way around the kitchen.

She said, frowning, ‘How did we get in here, anyway?’ Her keys, she remembered painfully, were in the car, parked at the bridge.

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