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A Gentle Awakening, страница 1


A Gentle Awakening

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A Gentle Awakening

  “Am I boring you?

  “Wanda dislikes hearing about illness, but I think that you are interested.”

  She had told him fervently that she was and, being a sensible girl, never hesitated to stop him so that he might explain something she hadn’t understood.

  She could have stayed there all night listening to him talking, but remembered in time that she was the cook, however pleasant he was being. So she made rather a muddled retreat in a flurry of good-nights and amusement. He had made the muddle worse by bending to kiss her as she reached the door, so that just for a moment she forgot that she was the cook.

  Romance readers around the world were sad to note the passing of Betty Neels in June 2001. Her career spanned thirty years, and she continued to write into her ninetieth year. To her millions of fans, Betty epitomized the romance writer, and yet she began writing almost by accident. She had retired from nursing, but her inquiring mind still sought stimulation. Her new career was born when she heard a lady in her local library bemoaning the lack of good romance novels. Betty’s first book, Sister Peters in Amsterdam, was published in 1969, and she eventually completed 134 books. Her novels offer a reassuring warmth that was very much a part of her own personality. She was a wonderful writer, and she will be greatly missed. Her spirit and genuine talent will live on in all her stories.














  THE hot June sunshine of a late afternoon bathed the narrow country road in warmth, and the only traveller on it dawdled along, pedalling slowly, partly from tiredness after a day’s work, and partly from a reluctance to arrive at her home.

  The village came in sight round the next curve: the bridge over the river, leading to the road which would eventually join the high road to Salisbury, and then the cottages on either side of the lane. They were charming, tiled or thatched, their red bricks glowing in the sunshine, their porches wreathed with clematis and roses. The cyclist came to a halt before one of these, and at the same time a silver-grey Bentley swam to a soundless halt beside her.

  The girl got off her bike. She was small and thin, with gingery hair plaited into a thick rope over one shoulder, green eyes transforming an ordinary face into something which, while not pretty, certainly lifted it from the ordinary.

  The car driver got out: a very large man, towering over her. Not so young, she decided, studying him calmly, but very good-looking, with dark hair sprinkled with grey, a formidable nose and heavy-lidded blue eyes. He smiled down at her, studying her in his turn, and then dismissing her from his thoughts. None the less, he smiled at her and his deep voice was pleasant.

  ‘I wonder if you could help us? We wanted to stay the night in the village, but the Trout and Feathers can’t put us up and we would rather not drive back to Wilton or Salisbury.’ He glanced over his shoulder to where a small girl’s face was thrust through the open window of the car. ‘Just bed and breakfast—we can get a meal at the pub.’

  He held out a hand. ‘The name is Sedley—William Sedley.’

  The girl offered a small brown hand and had it engulfed. ‘Florina Payne, and yes, if you go on as far as the bridge, there is a farmhouse facing it; they haven’t got a board up, but I’m sure they would put you up.’ She wrinkled her ginger brows. ‘There isn’t anybody else in the village, I’m afraid. You would have to go back to Burford St Martin on the main road.’

  She was thanked politely, and the child in the front seat waved to her as they drove off. She wheeled her bike along the brick path at the side of the cottage and went in through the kitchen door, thinking about the driver of the car, to have her thoughts rudely shattered by her father’s voice.

  ‘So there you are—took your time coming home, didn’t you? And then wasted more of it talking to that fellow. What did he want, anyway?’

  The speaker came into the kitchen, a middle-aged man with an ill-tempered face. ‘You might at least get home punctually; you know I can’t do anything much for myself, and here I am, alone all day and you crawling back when it suits you…’

  He paused for breath and Florina said gently, ‘Father, I came just as soon as I could get off. The hotel is very busy with the tourist season, you know, and that man only wanted to know where he could get a room for the night.’

  Her father snorted. ‘Pah, he could afford a hotel in Wilton, driving a Bentley!’ He added spitefully, ‘Wasting your time and his for that matter—who’d want to look twice at a ginger-headed plain Jane like you?’

  Florina was laying the table and, although colour stole into her cheeks, she answered in a matter-of-fact voice. ‘Well, it won’t be a waste of time if he gets a room at the farm. Sit down, Father, tea won’t be long.’

  She would very much have liked to have sat down herself and had a cup of tea; it had been a busy day at the hotel. During the summer season, tourists expected meals at odd hours, and she and the other two cooks there had worked all day, whisking up omelettes, steaks, fish dishes, egg dishes and salads, just as fast as they could. They had taken it in turn to eat a sandwich and drink a mug of tea, but it had been a long day. She had worked there for three years now, hating the long cycle ride in the winter to and from her home, as well as the long hours and the lack of free time. But the pay, while not over-generous, was good; it supplemented her father’s pension and brought him all the extra comforts he took as his right. That it might have given her the chance to buy pretty clothes had never entered his head; she was his daughter, twenty-seven years old, on the plain side, and it was her duty to look after him while he lived. Once or twice she had done her best to break free, and each time, when she had confronted him with a possible job away from home, he had clutched at his chest, gasped that he was dying and taken to his bed. A dutiful, but not loving daughter—for what was there to love?—she had accepted that after the one heart attack he had had several years ago, he could have another if he became upset or angry; so she had given in.

  She was a sensible girl and didn’t allow self-pity to overwhelm her. She was aware that she had no looks to speak of, and those that she had were hardly enhanced by the cheap clothes, bought with an eye to their hard-wearing quality rather than fashion.

  Her father refused to cook for himself during the day. She left cold food ready for him before she left each morning, and tea was a substantial meal, which meant that she had to cook once more. Haddock and poached eggs, a plate of bread and butter, stewed fruit and custard, and tea afterwards. She had no appetite for it, but the suggestion that they might have salads and cold meat met with a stream of grumbles, and anything was better than that after a day’s work.

  They ate in silence. Her father had no interest in her day and, since he had done nothing himself, there was nothing to tell her. He got up from the table presently and went into the sitting-room to sit down before the TV. Florina started to clear the table, wash up and put everything ready for breakfast. By the time she had finished the evening was well advanced but still light; half an hour’s walk would be pleasant, she decided. She cheerfully countered her father’s objections to this and set off through the village, past the cottages, past the Trout and Feathers, past the lovely old house next the pub where old Admiral Riley lived, and along the tree-lined lane. It was still warm and very quiet, and if she stood still she could hear the river beyond the trees.

  When she came to a gate she stopped to lean on it, well aware of the beauty of her surroundings, but too bus
y with her own thoughts to heed it. The need to escape was very strong; her mother had died five years previously and since then Florina had kept house for her father, pandering to his whims, because the doctor had warned her that a fit of temper or any major disturbance might bring on another heart attack. She had resigned herself to what was her plain duty, made the more irksome since her father had no affection for her. But things could be different now; her father had been for a check-up in Salisbury a week or so previously and, although he had told her that there was no improvement in his condition, she had quite by chance encountered the doctor, who had told her that her father was fit enough to resume a normal life.

  ‘A part-time job, perhaps?’ He smiled at Florina, whom he thought privately had had a raw deal. ‘He was in a bank, wasn’t he? Well, I dare say he could get taken on again. He’s only in his mid-fifties, isn’t he? And if he can’t find something to do, I’ve suggested to him that he might take over the housework; a little activity would do him good. Give you a chance to have a holiday.’

  She mulled over his news. Her father had flown into a rage when she had suggested that he might like to do a few chores around the house. He had clutched his chest and declared that she would be the death of him, and that she was the worst possible daughter that any man could have.

  Florina, having heard it all before, received his remarks with equanimity and said no more, but now she turned over several schemes in her mind. A different job, if she could find one and, since her father no longer was in danger, preferably away from home. Something not too far away, so that she could return for the weekends… She was so deep in thought that she didn’t hear anyone in the lane until they were almost level with her. The man and the little girl from the car, walking along hand in hand. When she turned to see who it was, the man inclined his head gravely and the little girl grinned and waved. Florina watched them walk on, back to the village. Presumably they had found their bed and breakfast, and tomorrow they would drive away in their lovely car and she would never see them again.

  She waited until they were out of sight, and then started back to the house. She had to leave home just after seven each morning, and tomorrow it would be even earlier, for there was a wedding reception at the hotel.

  She went back without haste, made their evening drinks, wished her father goodnight and went to her room, where she wasted five minutes examining her features in the looking-glass. There was, she considered, very little to be done about them: sandy hair, even though it gleamed and shone, was by no means considered beautiful, and a slightly tip-tilted nose and too wide a mouth held no charm. She got into bed and lay wondering about the man in the car. He had been very polite in a disinterested way; she could quite see that there was nothing in her person to attract a man, especially a man such as he, used, no doubt, to enchanting girls with golden hair and beautiful faces, wearing the latest fashions. Florina smiled at her silly thoughts and went off to sleep.

  It was the beginning of the most gorgeous day when she left early the next morning. Sir William Sedley, standing at his bedroom window and drinking his early morning tea, watched her pedalling briskly along the lane. The sun shone on her sandy head, turning it to gold, and she was whistling. He wondered where she was going at that early hour. Then he forgot her, almost immediately.

  It was a splendid morning and there was almost no traffic. Florina, going at a great rate on her elderly bike, wished that she could have been free to spend the day out of doors. The hotel kitchens, admirable though they were, were going to be uncomfortably warm. She slowed a little as she went through the small town, still quiet, and passed the nice old houses with the high walls of Wilton House behind them. The hotel was on the other side of the road, a pleasant building, surrounded by trees and with the river close by. She paused to take a look at the green peacefulness around her, then parked her bike and went in through the kitchen entrance.

  She was punctual, as always, but the place was already a hive of activity; first breakfasts being cooked, waiters loading trays. Florina called ‘good morning’ and went over to her particular corner, intent on icing petits fours, filling vol-au-vents and decorating the salmon in aspic designed for the wedding reception.

  She was a splendid cook, a talent she had inherited from her Dutch mother, together with a multitude of housewifely perfections which, sadly, her father had never appreciated. Florina sometimes wondered if her mother had been happy; she had been a quiet little woman, sensible and practical and cheerful, absorbing her father’s ill-temper with apparent ease. Florina missed her still. Whether her father did so too, she didn’t know, for he never talked of her. When, from time to time, she had tried to suggest a holiday with her mother’s family, he had been so incensed that he had become alarmingly red in the face, and she had feared that he would have another heart attack.

  Her thoughts, as busy as her fingers, darted to and fro, seeking an escape from a home which was no longer a home. Interlarded with them was the man in the car, although what business of his it was eluded her.

  He wasn’t thinking of her; he was strolling down the village street, his daughter beside him. His appointment was for ten o’clock and it wanted five minutes to the hour. The church clock struck the hour as they turned in through the open gates leading to the house where Admiral Riley lived.

  It was a delightful place, L-shaped, its heavy wooden door half-way down one side. It stood open, and there was no need to thump the great knocker, for the old man came to meet them.

  ‘Mrs Birch from the village, who looks after me while my wife is away, has gone to Wilton. So I’m alone, which is perhaps a good thing, for we can go round undisturbed.’

  He led the way through the hall and into a very large room with a window at its end. There were more windows and an open door along one side. It was furnished with some handsome mahogany pieces, and a number of easy chairs, and there was a massive marble fireplace facing the windows. The admiral went across the room and bent down to roll back the carpet before the hearth.

  ‘I don’t know if the agent told you about this?’ He chuckled and stood back so that his visitors could see what he had laid bare. A thick glass panel in the floor, and under it a steady flow of water. ‘There used to be a mill wheel, but that’s gone. The water runs under this room…’ He led the way through the doors on to a wide patio and leaned over a stone balustrade. ‘It comes out here and runs through the garden into the fields beyond.’

  The little girl caught her father’s hand. ‘Swans, Daddy!’ Her voice was a delighted squeak. ‘Do they live here, in this garden?’

  ‘Not quite in the garden,’ said the Admiral. ‘But they come for bread each day. You shall feed them presently, if you like.’

  The kitchen wing was in the other side of the L-shape, a delightful mixture of old-fashioned pantries, with everything that any housewife could wish for. There were other rooms, too: a dining-room, a small sitting-room, a study lined with bookshelves. Upstairs, the rooms were light and airy; there were five of them and three bathrooms, as well as a great attic reached by a narrow little stair. ‘My playroom,’ whispered the little girl.

  They went back to the drawing-room presently, and the Admiral fetched the coffee tray and bread for the swans. ‘I’ve been here for more than twenty years,’ he observed, ‘and we hate to leave it, but my wife has to live in a warm climate. She’s been in Italy for a couple of months and already she is greatly improved. May I ask where you come from, Sir William?’

  ‘London—Knightsbridge. I’m a paediatrician, consultant at several hospitals. I want Pauline to grow up in the country and, provided I can get help to run the house, I can drive up and down to town and stay overnight when I must. There’s a good school, I hear; Pauline can go by the day.’

  ‘Too far for her to cycle.’

  ‘Yes, whoever comes here to look after us will have to drive her in and fetch her each day. A problem I’ll deal with later.’ He smiled suddenly. ‘I should like to buy your house, Admiral.
May our solicitors get to work on it?’

  He sat back in his chair, very relaxed, a calm man who had made up his mind without fuss. ‘They’ll take three weeks if we bully them,’ he said. ‘May I come again with someone to advise me about cooking stoves and so on?’ He added, ‘I’m a widower, but I have plans to re-marry.’

  ‘Of course. I shall probably be ready to move out before the solicitors fix a date. Feel free to arrange for carpets and curtains and so forth. Wilton is small, but there are a couple of excellent furnishing firms.’

  They finished their coffee in companionable silence; two men who arranged their lives without fuss.

  Walking back through the village, presently, Sir William asked, ‘You’re pleased, darling? You’ll be happy here? I’ll get Nanny to come and live with us for a time…’

  ‘Until you marry Miss Fortesque?’ said Pauline in a sad voice, so that her father stopped to look down at her.

  ‘Look, darling, I know it’s a bit difficult for you to understand, but Wanda is very fond of you, and it’ll be nice for you to have someone to come home to and talk to…’

  ‘There’s you, Daddy…’

  ‘I shall be in town for several days in the week. Once Wanda’s here she will be able to get to know everyone about, and you’ll have lots of friends.’

  Pauline’s small, firm mouth closed into an obstinate line. ‘I’d be quite happy with Nanny.’

  ‘Yes, love, but Nanny retired last year, she won’t want to start working all over again. If she comes for a few months…’

  ‘Until you get married?’

  ‘Until I get married,’ repeated her father gently, and then, ‘I thought you liked Wanda?’

  Pauline shrugged her small shoulders. ‘She’s all right, but she’s not like a mother, is she? She fusses about her clothes!’

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