"Oh, I think I would have remembered."
My great grandmother accepted the proffered hand graciously.
"Call me Katherine."
Good heavens - was she flirting? It was a good job Mike was still holding on to me, or I might have slid to the floor.
"Thank you, Katherine. Are you joining us for breakfast? There's enough to go around."
Give him his due, he really sounded like he meant it.
Katherine smiled in a way that I recognised – innocent to the outsider, but it meant to me that she would require answers to many questions before I was much older.
"Dear boy, I wouldn't dream of it, but thank you for offering." She looked meaningfully at me. " Lily, we will talk later in the week."
I bet we will.
"Lovely to meet you, Mike, I look forward to seeing you again."
Mike grinned, apparently all too aware of the undertones and amused at my obvious discomfort.
"I'm not planning on going anywhere."
Katherine gave him another penetrating look.
She looked back at me and opened her arms. It was not duty that made me step forward into the familiar hug.
The warmth and perfumed memories would stay with me forever, long after she was gone, as would her sotto voce verdict.
Blimey. This was a day of firsts.
After seeing Grammas out, and still feeling somewhat bemused, I went to find my other visitor. Mike had been considerate enough to let me see my great grandmother off alone, and now he was waiting in my little kitchen with croissants and tea. I hardened my new heart against finding the scene too comfortable.
"You shouldn't have done that. Now I'm going to have to explain why you dumped me by the next family gathering."
That wasn't the real reason I was miffed, but it would suffice.
Mike handed me a warm buttery croissant on a plate. Just to be clear, I took it because I love croissants, not because I can be bribed. Mike looked at me as he took a bite of his croissant. He chewed thoughtfully and swallowed.
"Don't do that."
It came out more like Moo Wah? around my mouthful of food. I really should take smaller bites, especially in company.
"Assume that you will be 'dumped'."
I confess that I was confused. As far as I knew, I was not actually dating anyone at the moment. I said as much.
This new assertive Mike carried on.
"I think you're more annoyed that I let your Grammas assume that we're together instead of letting you struggle to explain a situation that you're not allowed to explain. You're upset that I may have caused or will cause your Grammas some unhappiness."
Bugger. Hit the nail right on the head.
"Okay. Lucky guess."
Mike moved closer to me. Any other person and I would probably have moved a step back to maintain the distance between us, but for some reason I didn't feel like that today. I watched him lick the buttery fragments of pastry from his fingertips and surprised myself with the thought that I would quite like to be doing that myself.
He took hold of my right hand and lifted it up. I couldn't seem to lift my eyes any further than the level of Mike's lips, but I could still feel him staring at me. Intently.
"I think you'll find I'm quite good at guessing."
My perfectly air conditioned apartment suddenly seemed to be rather warm. Watching with the impression that it was happening to someone else, I followed the movement of Mike's mouth as it closed over one of my fingertips. The sudden heat and the stroking lick of his tongue abruptly made the sensation feel very personal.
I am not one of the world's biggest fans of licking people's fingers; all seems a bit yucky to me. But I was discovering that it had either been performed incorrectly in the past, or had simply had been the wrong person doing it. Now it seemed perfectly natural and really rather...exotic. Normally by now I would be on the retreat, trying to get away from the licky weirdo, but here I am, mesmerised by the fact that Mike was now moving on to my next finger, and I'm not doing a damn thing to stop him.
I ought to be feeling self-conscious but I don't. I ought to be telling Mike that I'm his boss and this is not a good idea, but I don't. I ought to be worrying about whether I'm suitably trimmed, fluffed, plucked and scented for the possibility of where this might lead, but I don't. None of this thinking is going on in my front brain and I will only put this into coherent words later. Right now, for only the second time in my life, I am right in the moment.
I don't know whether my dance with death has made me more prepared to take a chance, or if I just want to feel this distracted, but I'm going with the flow. The only thing on my mind is how quickly will Mike get to my next finger. Suddenly I can't get enough air into my lungs and I feel breathless and dizzy.
In what seemed like both seconds and hours later, Mike finished with my last fingertip, though he appeared reluctant to stop what he was doing. When he finally lifted his head, and looked at me, I could see the conflict and retreat in his eyes. Wherever I thought this was going, I was wrong. It was not a bucket of cold water over me, but it might as well have been.
I waited for more after the gentle exhalation, but that seemed to be it. Eventually though, curiosity got the better of me.
"I'm sorry, I shouldn't..."
I felt suddenly embarrassed and unsure. I didn't want him to finish the sentence and apologise or some stupid crap like that. I thought he liked me. Actually, I thought he more than liked me. He can't just blow hot and cold like that, it's not fair. Disappointed, I pulled my hand out of his and went over to the sink. It meant that I could keep my back to him while I washed my hands. I made my voice bright.
"It's okay, just one of those things. Don't make such a big deal of it. Forget it. Look, forgotten, gone."
I couldn't see his face, but I heard another soft sigh.
"But what if I don't want to 'forget it', Lily."
Then what do you want?
Mike reached around me to turn off the water. He then rested his hands on the upper part of my arms. I could feel his breath on my neck and I shivered involuntarily.
He let go of me immediately and stepped back a pace. I realised too late that he had mistaken my quiver of excitement for a shudder of dislike. When I turned to look at him, his face was blank, like a mask.
"I'd better go. I have a couple of things I need to do."
I didn't know what to say. I don't think I've ever felt this confused. Mike seemed to be expecting me to say something, but when I didn't, he turned to go, with a casual 'see you later' over his shoulder.
I didn't follow him out. I was angry, upset, annoyed, conflicted and highly miffed that I was so turned on with nowhere to go with it.
I snatched a couple of grapes from the bunch on the counter and threw them into my mouth, crunching and swallowing them quickly. As comfort eating went, it was a bit pathetic, but I was all out of cake. I took another grape and shoved that one in, too.
"Look, I don't want to leave it there -."
I squawked and I jumped out of my skin at Mike's sudden reappearance - I had no idea he hadn't left.
Two things happened simultaneously.
I inhaled the grape I had just put in my mouth.
And I started to choke.
I tried to breathe in through my nose only, but it didn't work. I had no air in my lungs to expel the fruit. I started to panic and tried to get air through my mouth, pulling the grape in further.
From Mike's expression, my flapping and the pointing at my throat was quite unnecessary. With a calmness that I would admire later, but at the time irritated me intensely in what appeared to be my last moments, he crossed the kitchen, stepped behind me and grabbed me around the waist. He balled his hands into a fist under my ribs and tugged hard. Without waiting for me to say if it had worked or not, he tugged again, pulling me tight up against him.
To my everlasting relief, the grape shot out of my mouth. Oh, the sweet pleasure of that first draught of air!
I nodded, too busy happily breathing to speak.
"Thank God! I'm so sorry; I thought you realised that I was still here."
My heart may have been thumping like mad with the passing panic and my legs were still shaking, but I was far more aware of the fact that Mike was plastered up against me than anything else. Am I shallow, or what?
"N...no, I thought you'd left."
I sounded like a needy wimp. I tried to summon up some ire.
"You scared the wits out of me."
He must be able to feel me shaking.
"Yes, and I'm still sorry."
He didn't seem to have noticed that he hadn't let me go. His clasped hands were still under my bust, and his hips were...
It appears that he does still like me after all.
Sam looked glumly at the contents of her purse. A pint of milk, a loaf of bread and a lump of cheese for supper would take a chunk out of her change. It was a blessing that she still had fresh veg from the garden, but meat was looking increasingly unlikely.
"Well, could be worse."
The war was still a recent memory; things had been worse then, much worse. She still had her health and her lodgings.
That reminded her; the rent was due the day after tomorrow. She hopped up from the table in the kitchen and checked the rent tin.
"At least I'm okay for this week."
Her severance pay would shore her up for a few weeks, but after that, it was back to dipping into her savings. Or going home to the Vicarage.
Neither would be her first choice.
But her first choice was dragging his heels somewhat.
After the promising start last month, Sam had hoped that dear Mr F would give her another glimpse of a future possibility. The unguarded expression on his face had surprised her, but it hadn't frightened her.
Sam carried her cup of tea in to the front room and took the armchair nearest the fire out of habit. The kindling was ready to light, but she was saving it until she was cold. Once she was comfortable, she allowed herself to think back to that moment of unconscious revelation. It hadn't been a simple expression. She had seen more than one emotion there. The main one, the one that gave her the most hope, was...well, desire was the wrong word. It was more a sort of restrained wanting. Yes, the more she thought about it, the clearer it seemed. Of course he would think she was off limits, but he did want her.
It was a start, and a good one.
Mmm. She liked the sound of it in her head. Sir and Mr Foyle tripped off the tongue so easily it was unusual to think of him as Christopher.
"Christopher. Christopher, mmm, yes, I could get used to it. With practise. Which I intend to get."
Sam took a sip of tea.
She shook her head.
"No, that doesn't suit him at all. He wouldn't like that, I'm sure."
Another sip of tea.
"Far too flippant and cheeky. Suit someone more like Andrew."
Sam grinned to herself.
"Lordy. That's another thing. Andrew would be my stepson."
Sam laughed aloud.
"I'd be his stepmother!"
The radio was playing softly in the background, a beautiful piano concerto, one of Foyle's personal favourites. The dining table was littered with the paraphernalia required for the construction of the fly he was making at the moment. He was working on a variation of the famous Woolly Bugger, a simple fly, usually made in earth tones to represent a leech or larva, but he was building a more vividly coloured version to tempt some of the more recalcitrant fish out from hiding.
After securing the streamer hook in the clamp and choosing what colour thread he was going to go with this time around, Foyle took a drink from the tumbler of whiskey he had poured earlier. Alcohol was still an expensive luxury even when it could be found, but he had treated himself to a bottle to celebrate his resignation.
After having savoured the fine malt, Foyle leaned back in his chair and sighed. To all intents and purposes, his life was going along quite well. The War was becoming a memory, his son was alive and well, and he had managed to leave the police force at long last. He had the time, the inclination and enough money to indulge himself for a while, until he was ready to move on. At fifty four he was too young for his resignation to be permanent, but he had no desire to return to police work. By all accounts, he should be happy.
But he wasn't.
After the third attempt to tie the fly failed, Foyle dropped the fine pliers in disgust. His mind was simply not on the task. He stood up, crossed to the radio and turned it off in the middle of Chopin. Sacrilegious he knew, but he didn't care today. He needed something to work off his irritable mood. He knew all too well exactly why he was feeling out of sorts. It was spring, and it wasn't just a young man's fancy that lightly turned to thoughts of love.
Foyle frowned, mildly diverted; he was sure that was Tennyson, but he couldn't for a moment think which one. Poems were more Rosalind's sort of thing.
For the want of a distraction, he went over to the bookcase and scanned the titles, looking for his wife's favourite poetry book. Dark green cover, if he remembered correctly.
"There you are. Green, thought so."
He flicked through the book, dipping in and out of the pages casually, for several minutes.
"Ah, yes. Locksley Hall. Of course. Never did like that one."
Foyle scanned down the poem, more out of a casual desire to confirm his suspicions about the quote than for anything else, but another line leapt out at him before he found it.
'For I dipt into the future,
far as human eye could see;
Saw the vision of the world,
and all the wonder that would be...
The hair on the back of Foyle's neck stood on end.
All hope of moving on from Lily suddenly seemed too large a task. So much reminded him of her, even a poetry book once cherished by his wife. He moved back to the table and picked up his whiskey, downing the last of it in one mouthful. He welcomed the smooth distracting warmth as it slid down his throat. When he turned back, Rosalind's photograph was the first thing he saw.
Foyle closed his eyes, the pain etched deep in the lines of his face.
Rosalind's loss had hit him the hardest; not only did he need to grieve, but he had to raise their grieving son alone too. Elizabeth, in retrospect, was a typical first love; burned brightly, but burned out quickly when he realised how easily she allowed herself to be guided by her parents and her prospects – or lack thereof - as a lowly policeman's wife. He would have married Caroline as soon as she could have divorced, but he had bowed to her wishes at the time, difficult as it had been for both of them. Then finally, after all this time, he had met someone who had tempted him to risk his heart again, and she too, had vanished. Literally.
As if to confuse him further, his newly awakened heart was making him see possibilities where previously he thought there were none.
She can't breathe without you.
Leaving everything as it was, he grabbed his coat and hat from the hall stand and left the house. He needed some fresh air.
Another week, another check up. New heart is fine, blah blah.
I'm physically fine, but mentally, not so much. After the obvious clue last week that Mike is at least aroused by me (oh my Gawd, I hope he wasn't turned on by the idea that I'd nearly died), I'm wondering why he's backed off completely. He was even allowing that tart from the Beta team to fawn all over him at work the other day, and I know he doesn't like it, because he's said so in the past. He knows that she's trying to get him to defect to the other team; they know he's the best engineer – who can blame them?
But he's never even given her the time of day before.
I turned back to the Consultant and realised that he'd asked me a question. I'm blank. No clue.
"I asked how you've been feeling lately. Physically, you're back to normal, but how are you coping emotionally? Being shot, being dead, to all intents and purposes, will take its toll."
Different. I feel different, but it's not the new heart, I felt different before I'd been shot.
"I've seen the counsellors; they've passed me fit for duty. I'm doing okay."
Something in my tone obviously didn't sit well with him.
"Nothing...Just tired, I guess. Being back at work. Busy."
The consultant made an addition to my notes.
"Tiredness is not unexpected under the circumstances. Pace yourself, listen to your body. Have a few early nights."
"Okay. You're the boss."
Shanarin looked up as I stood up.
"I'll see you in a month."
"Okay, and thanks."
I went back to work after I'd had something to eat. The day was as routine as any day until just before knocking off time. The Beta team were trickling in and our team started the hand-off. It was all going well until Randy Mandy zoned in on Mike.
Oh no you don't; mitts off madam.
"Lily? Are you okay?"
I looked at Zak, very briefly, but my gaze was drawn quickly back to my engineer. I probably sounded distracted. I certainly felt it.
"Why? What's up?"
Zak, the sweetheart, was looking puzzled.
"You don't normally call me 'madam', for a start."
Oh shuzbutt, tell me I'm not muttering out loud now.
I turned my back on the Mike and Randy show.
"Madam? Gah, ignore me. I've just spied Mandy trying to get her claws in Mike. When will she get the message? He's staying with us."
Zak peered past me and smirked.
"She's sure being persuasive. I don't think I could stand up to that kind of torture."
Zak's amusement made me half turn to see what was going on. It was not pretty.
Mandy was wrapped around Mike's arm. Much closer and she'd be classed as underwear.
Should she be wearing so much lippy at work? Shouldn't that unruly hair be tied up out of the way? Does her dress have to be so tight? And short?
At least Mike will put her in her place and walk away.
Aaaany moment now.
Just going to brush her off and walk away.
Mike laughed at something The Tart said.
I turned and walked out. I was so mad that I was nearly half way home before I realised I'd not finished my handover.
I'll apologise to Zak tomorrow, I'm sure he'll cover for me. I'll owe him one.
How dare Mike behave like that?
I slammed my front door, seething with righteous indignation.
How dare Randy Mandy fawn all over him like that, touching him, laughing with him!
My bag thumped onto the table.
Bloody pouting mouth and fake fingernails.
I kicked my shoes off. My feet were happier than I was. Did I mention that I'd been experimenting with higher heels?
Overdressed, self-obsessed, facile, insincere...
I was running out of adjectives because I couldn't see past the red haze. That got me even more angry.
But it wasn't until I walked into my kitchen and saw the grapes that I realised why I was so mad.
Was this jealousy?
Oh, sod the dog.
I'm in love with Mike.
I wailed aloud.
"No, I can't possibly be in love with Mike!"
But, of course, denial ain't just a river in Africa.
All these years we have worked together, all this time that I've been aware that Mike wanted me and I kept him at arms length, all the time we spent together while I was convalescing, all the time we were together but apart, close but not intimate, I realise now that, despite my neglect of him, I always trusted that he would be there for me.
I've been so selfish and blind.
When Mike visited me in hospital and I thought he was Chris, I felt sorry for him. Just sorrow, and maybe a bit of pity, because he loved me and I didn't feel the same way about him. I realise now that I hurt him more than I was capable of understanding. The connection I had with Chris was something I'd never experienced before and once I'd left him behind, in the past, I felt lost without it.
In a sudden flash of insight I understood a small measure of how Mike must be feeling...must have felt...when he wanted me and I didn't want him.
Without conscious thought I went and changed into comfy clothes and then made myself a pot of tea, going through the calm, familiar procedures while my brain took a brief break to regroup a few braincells. When I finally was seated on the sofa, mug in hand, I came back to myself.
There comes a point in most lives when you come to realise who matters to you. These moments of retrospection or insight usually happen after some sort of trauma, so I'm guessing I qualify. I haven't a huge circle of friends, just a reasonable selection of serious acquaintances really. A lot of them never impacted in my life; if they'd moved away I wouldn't be unduly concerned about maintaining contact.
But in that same reflection, I realise that there are those who will always mean something to me. My family, obviously, my parents, grandparents,my Grammas and Gramps, my sibs; all very important to me. How would Mike fit into that picture? Well, Grammas seemed to think he'd do okay. Better than okay. A keeper, she'd said. Thinking about it seriously for the first time, the Mike I have come to know would fit very well into my family.
But Mike appears to have moved on; he didn't follow up his chance last week when I don't think I'd have turned him down and now he's laughing with Randy Mandy.
I sipped my tea, feeling morose.
Anything neglected for long enough dies eventually – even love.
Just as I was in danger of slipping into the maudlin, my doorbell went. I mentally tutted - it meant getting up from the sofa where I'd bedded in with my reading blanket (you know, the one you have for reading late into the night when you get so cold after sitting still for ages?).
I'd loved to have seen my expression when I opened the door and found Mike standing there. Where was Randy Mandy?
Foyle had been out fishing and had been quite successful, which is why this fine and warm afternoon found him walking to Sam's lodgings. He was on his way to share his largesse with her, as he had done on more than one occasion recently. She didn't need to know that he caught more than he needed just so that he had a reason to drop round and an excuse to feed her.
Having knocked and waited several moments, a disappointed Foyle had been on the verge of leaving when the door had suddenly opened.
"Good afternoon, Sam."
"Oh, it's you."
Foyle had doffed his hat with automatic courtesy, which gave him a few seconds to work out the dichotomy between Sam's greeting, which had contained a distinct note of relief, if he wasn't mistaken, and her appearance, which was somewhere between dishevelled and distressed.
Foyle cut politely to the point, his original errand forgotten.
"Is everything all right?"
He could see her doing her best to summon up her stiff upper lip spirit, but her lower lip gave the game away completely when it wobbled perilously.
Sam glanced behind her and pulled the door closer.
"To be honest, no, everything is not all right."
He hadn't missed the gesture and his insides gripped with concern. Was there an intruder? Was she being held against her will?
"How may I help?"
Foyle did not hesitate; he did not even given a moment's thought to letting Sam cope alone. Her expression seemed torn between two extremes; delight and misery, but with an odd measure of guilt thrown in the mix. What on Earth was going on?
"You'd better come in, if you have a few moments?"
Sam had stepped back to let him in to the house. Foyle felt himself relax to a wary caution now that he had been invited in; he didn't want to leave her alone in her difficulties, whatever they were.
As soon as the front door closed behind him, Foyle turned to enquire as to Sam's distress, but she beat him to it.
"My father is in the garden. Actually, we both were, which is why I nearly didn't hear your knock."
Foyle understood her behaviour now. There was no intruder, just the Reverend Stewart, but that in itself might not be the best news.
Sam half-smiled and gave a single nod.
"Yes, exactly. He has come to persuade me that I'll be better off back at the Vicarage, especially as I don't have a proper job yet. Uncle Aubrey did his best, but Father – well, he's here."
Foyle noted the guilty undertone again and wondered what was making her feel like that. With a sinking heart he remembered seeing that look before – when Sam had been stepping out with Andrew behind his back.
Demonstrating an insouciance he didn't feel, Foyle lifted an enquiring brow.
"Sam, what is going on?"
With another nervous glance towards the back of the house, Sam lowered her voice and spoke quickly.
"Well, my father wanted to take me back with him today, and I sort of panicked, and told him that I couldn't come home because I was needed here, in Hastings."
With a sinking feeling that usually heralded trouble, Foyle could tell that there was more.
There was a spot of hand wringing now.
"The thing is, I...um...might have given him the impression that I've been working for quite a while in another job..."
Another nod and a glance back.
"Yes, as your housekeeper."
Both of Foyle's eyebrows shot up this time, but before Sam could say anything else, her father's voice was heard in the kitchen.
"Samantha dear, who was at the door?"
Sam quickly moved from guilt to anxiety; she laid her hand on Foyle's forearm urgently, and her voice dropped to a hiss.
"There's something else -"
She cut off abruptly as her father entered the room, leaving Foyle wondering just how much worse it could get.
Foyle very briefly glanced to her for guidance, but there was no clear indication of what was expected of him.
The Reverend Stewart's eyes lighted on Foyle.
"Mr Foyle, we meet again at last, though I wish it were under better circumstances."
Foyle had expected Sam's father to step forward to shake hands with him and had stepped a pace to greet him before he realised that the Vicar had not moved any closer.
"Good to see you again, Sir." He turned slightly towards Sam, whose complexion by now had changed from an unnatural paleness to a deep blush of pink...
"Ermm, better circumstances?"
He looked again to Sam for enlightenment, but it was the Vicar who answered.
"If I'd known that you had asked Samantha to be your housekeeper, I confess I would have thought it an unwise move and naturally indicated my concern to her."
Foyle's eyes flicked from the father to the daughter with deceptive laziness.
Sam could hear the hint of dryness in the response, even if her father couldn't.
"Oh, I don't blame her entirely, the young learn by making mistakes, but we don't have to compound them, do we?"
Foyle was not keen on the direction this conversation appeared to be taking. What, exactly, had Sam said to her father?
"N..no, we don't."
But the Reverend wasn't finished.
"Dear me, what on Earth were you thinking? A young woman's head can be so easily turned. An experienced man such as yourself and you couldn't see that this might happen?"
Baffled, Foyle turned back to the older man.
"I'm sorry, I'm not exactly sure what - "
Sam finally seemed to have regained her voice. Her hand – which had remained on Foyle's arm all along - squeezed him with controlled urgency.
"I'm sorry, darling, you know what I'm like, I couldn't help myself, I told Father, even though I knew that you wanted to speak to him first. I was simply just so excited."
Time seemed to stand still for Foyle.
"You told your father...?"
"About our engagement, yes."