ROMANCE IN FRANCE

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Chapter 12

Pup’s ears pricked up as he heard a noise. It was a soft whispering sound. He lifted his head up off the bed, then sat up listening, moving his head slowly from side to side as if he were a homing machine. Slowly he lay back down again. Five minutes later his head came up again. This time, he’d caught a whiff of smoke. He sat up sniffing hard. Then jumping down off the bed where Jemma slept peacefully, he ran to the door.

Jemma never shut the bedroom door, just in case she had to get up to see to Alice. He ran to the top of the landing and gazed down the stairs, sniffing madly. Something didn’t smell right. He ran back to Jemma’s room whining. Jumping up onto the bed he began to paw the covers and whimper loudly.

Jemma woke up, rubbing her eyes sleepily with her fists. ‘Pup? What’s the matter?’ She listened intently. ‘Is it Alice?’ She sat up and Pup barked at her excitedly. He jumped off the bed and ran to the door barking loudly. ‘Okay Pup, I’m coming,’ she slipped her dressing gown on and followed him wonderingly along the landing.

She didn’t wonder long, as she passed Alice’s bedroom the smell of smoke wafted to her nose and she ran to the top of the stairs where the smell of smoke was much stronger. It seemed to be drifting up from the bottom floor. Quickly she ran down the stairs. Mark’s rooms were on the bottom floor. The smell of smoke was certainly stronger at the bottom of the stairs. She strained her eye’s trying to see in the dark, her hand feeling for the light switch. Could she see a few tendrils of smoke coming from under Mark’s door? Forgetting the light switch she ran down the passage and banged hard on the door. No one answered. She opened the door and a cloud of thick smoke hit her in the face before she quickly closed it again. Immediately she turned and ran back up the stairs, her heart beating fast. She had to wake Carl up.

Carl! Carl! The house is on fire, she shouted at the top of her voice as she ran up the stairs dashed straight into his room and whipped the covers back on his bed without thinking. Carl lay on his stomach, naked. Embarrassed at what she had done, she quickly flicked the covers back up again. Carl turned over and sat up shocked, waking up instantly. Seeing Jemma stood there in her dressing gown and realising what she had just done, a shaft of desire leapt unexpectedly through his body.

‘What is it, Jemma? What’s the matter?’

‘Carl!’ she shook his arm urgently, trying to get the words out again ‘The house is on fire! Mark’s rooms are full of smoke. Get up, please! I have to wake Abbey, and get Alice! WAKE UP!’ The danger once again uppermost in her mind she twisted round on the spot and ran out of the room, leaving Carl to get out of bed. He jumped out of bed and into his shorts in practically one movement; running full pelt out of his bedroom and down the stairs. Jumping down the last few steps’ two at a time and flying into the kitchen he grabbed a couple of tea towels off their hooks and pushed them under the taps to wet them through. Then he galloped headlong, down the passage to his brother’s rooms.

Approaching the door he spied the tendrils of smoke that leaked around the edges of the door and he opened the door to his brother’s room with trepidation. The tea towels now held tightly to his face. The smoke was thick and dark curling out enveloping him. Its tendrils drew him into the room wrapping themselves around him thick and heavy like a blanket. Quickly he pulled the door shut after him remembering to keep the fire contained. It was then that the panic set in momentarily filling him with terror. He reached out blindly, one hand clawing wildly, feeling for the wall. Just for a second he’d lost it. He stood still! His heart beating rapidly; quickly he pulled himself together thinking how lucky it was he’d thought of the wet tea towels. He took a deep breath, trying to calm himself down, the towel pressed tightly to his nose and mouth. Then keeping his hand pressed to the wall he followed it until he came to the door of Mark’s bedroom.

The door stood shut. ‘Thank God’ thought Carl. ‘It may not have reached him yet.’ He opened the bedroom door and stepped inside quickly pushing it shut after him. The smoke wasn’t quite as thick in the bedroom but it was still disorienting. He made his way as quickly as he could across the room to his brother’s bed and slapped one of the sodden tea towels over Mark’s face, then grabbed his arm, and shook him violently.

Mark woke up coughing loudly the smoke he had inhaled hurting his throat. The smoke causing his eyes to sting as he tried to open them made him shut them again quickly. ‘Wake up Mark! The house is on fire,’ Carl said roughly between coughs, still shaking his arm. ‘We have to get out.’ Mark opened his eyes again. They stung so badly he could hardly see a thing. He pushed the covers back and sat up groggily. The wet tea towel smelled disgustingly of smoke. He lifted the tea towel off his face, then he wished hadn’t, as the smoke hit his lungs again. Gratefully he replaced it.

’Ugh! What! Oh God! Carl? What’s going on?’

’Your rooms are on fire Mark. Come on! We have to get out of here.’

Carl helped his brother out of the bed and they made their way over to the window. Mark’s leg was still stiff and it took a little while to maneuver him around, but finally they managed to get him out of the window without further mishap. Carl quickly climbed out after him. They made their way around the house to the kitchen door hoping to see the girls, but on reaching it they found it still locked. Neither of them had a key on them, and there wasn’t anyway they could break the door in. Even Carl and Mark’s combined weight wouldn’t have broken it down. The old door was made of oak and solid as a rock.

Coming to the same conclusion, they turned to each other saying in unison ‘Patio doors!’ Carl ran round to the patio doors, leaving Mark to limp behind him. Carl was doing his best to try and force the patio doors open when Mark arrived. ‘If we can break them, the alarm will go off and that with any luck should bring the police,’ Mark said worriedly. ‘Then, they’ll phone the fire brigade’

‘If we can get in, I can phone the damn fire brigade myself. We need to get Alice, and the girls out. For all we know, the smoke could have knocked them unconscious by now,’ said Carl. He felt so worried that he was beginning to feel sick. They both searched round frantically, trying desperately to find something that they could break the lock with. Eventually they managed to pries a stone loose from one of the flowerbeds and Mark smashed at the lock. It didn’t break but set the alarm off. In desperation they threw the stone at the glass but it still wouldn’t break.

‘Grandmother must have had unbreakable glass put into these damn doors,’ said Mark the frustration beginning to build up inside him, filling him with alarm.

Meanwhile, Jemma had gathered Abbey and Alice from their bedrooms and shepherded them onto the upstairs landing to where a small window looked directly out above the patio doors. Alice stood at the side of them wide eyed, still wrapped in the sheets just as Jemma had picked her up out of the cot, sheets and all. They were struggling with the catch trying to open the window. It took a while, both the girls trying desperately one after the other, until eventually they managed to open it.

The men heard a voice and looked up as they heard someone shouting above the sound of the alarm. They could see Jemma, Alice and Abbey, at the upstairs window, waving madly.

Jemma took the sheet from around Alice and began to tear it into strips. Then making a kind of harness, she tied it around Alice. Very carefully the two girls let Alice down through the window to the men, quickly following the same procedure with Pup.

It wasn’t so easy for the girls. For one thing the window was very small, would they be able to get through?

‘You try first Abbey. You’re smaller than I am. We can tie the sheet to the rail.’

‘No! I’m not leaving without you.’ Jemma looked at her friend worriedly.

‘How were they going to get out,’ wondered Jemma. The smoke on the stairs had become much thicker. The girls could see the thin curling tendrils of smoke in the darkness, drifting up the stairs towards them. It was becoming difficult to breathe. Jemma watched the tendrils of smoke and suddenly an idea began to form in her head.

‘Come on!’ Grabbing Abbey’s arm, she pulled her friend back along the landing to the laundry cupboard. Once there, she grabbed a couple of the sheets from the shelf. Then dragging Abbey behind her again, she ran into the bathroom and turned the shower on, quickly wetting the sheets before she passed one of them to Abbey. They wrapped the wet sheets around themselves, shivering, as the clammy sheets soaked through their nightclothes wetting them through.

‘Let’s see if we can make it out of the dining room doors,’ said Jemma to her friend hopefully.

Down the stairs they groped, Jemma hanging onto the banister rail and Abbey clinging tightly to Jemma’s hand. The smoke was thicker at the bottom of the stairs and Jemma pulled her friend to her, wrapping her arm around her shoulders, to hold her closer. She lived in the house and new her way out she hoped. Though the smoke was so dense, she was afraid she might make a mistake and go the wrong way. Slowly, they made their way along the walls, their eyes streaming and stinging, clinging tightly to each other. Then at last Jemma heaved a sigh of relief and said thanks, as she felt the glass doors beneath her hands. Moving her fingers along the glass and sliding her way thankfully along to the lock.

Mark stood holding Alice while Carl was still trying to break in and they reared back in horror as two white figures appeared in front of the glass doors.

Jemma turned the key in the lock and pushed at the doors, they wouldn’t open. Frantically she turned the key again as she remembered that you had to turn the key twice. The panic lifting from her shoulders like a great weight as the doors opened and they stepped outside into the cool dark night.

Mark and Carl stepped forward pulling the girl’s away from the glass urgently before they shut the doors again, just as the police car drew up outside.

The police officer was immediately on the phone to the fire brigade and the ambulance when he saw the smoke billowing out of the windows. The fire brigade arrived in a matter of minutes to put out the fire, the ambulance close on their heels. They were all whipped off to the hospital for tests, although everyone declared they were fine and arrived back at the house in time to catch the fire chief.

‘It’s a good job the walls are made of stone and it’s a large house,’ said the fire chief, nodding his head towards the large stone building as he stood talking to Mark. ‘Most of it is just smoke damage, you may have a lot of redecorating to do, and probably one or two pieces of furniture to replace, but most of it still looks sound.’ The fire chief appeared pleased, to report the good news.

‘Have you found out what caused it?’ Carl asked in a bewildered tone. ‘Not yet, we’ll probably have a better idea when we can find out where it started,’ said the fire chief. ‘I’ve sent Pierre, in to open all the doors and windows. That should help to disperse the smoke. I think most of it’s contained in these downstairs rooms at the back of the house, luckily. There will probably be a lot of work needed on those two rooms, but you should be able to use the rest of the house although the smoke smell will be dreadful for a while.’ The fire chief having reported his good news wandered off to see to his men.

It was seven o’clock in the morning before the fire fighters eventually left, and everyone moved into the kitchen gasping for a cup of tea.

The kitchen smelled dreadful although there didn’t seem to be a great deal of damage done and as the fireman had said when they all explored the rest of the house there didn’t seem much damage at all. The hall and staircase leading off Mark’s rooms had faired the worst. The walls black where the smoke had worked its way through the door, seeping around the edges. The dining room smelled terrible and everything needed cleaning and redecorating. The office would need a good airing and probably the walls and furniture washing but generally it wasn’t quite as bad as expected.

A look of sheer surprise appeared on Yvette’s face when she entered the house to find everyone in the kitchen. Then she wrinkled her nose, as she smelled the smoke.

’Goodness, what’s been going on?’

A long time later, after much hard work, the girls put Alice to bed.

’At least Alice’s room smells better now,’ said Jemma to Abbey, as they walked back to the kitchen. The three women had spent the whole day cleaning and were now beginning to feel the effects, especially the girls.

’I’ll leave now girls, we can do some more cleaning tomorrow,’ said Yvette, collecting her bag and getting ready to make her way home. The men, that were cleaning the hall and stairway, started gathering their things together and began getting ready to leave too.

Jemma and Abbey began rather tiredly to prepare their evening meal.

’I’m so grateful for your help,’ said Jemma, smiling appreciatively at Abbey.

’But it’s an awful shame it had to happen, while you were on your holiday.’

‘I couldn’t care less about the work’ Abbey said, laughing happily. ‘Stop fretting your self Jemma, I’m having the time of my life,’ and she twirled around the kitchen as if to prove it bumping into Mark as he walked through the kitchen door.

‘Marvellous,’ he said, gathering her into his outstretched arms; ‘Just what I need, a beautiful woman throwing herself into my arms before dinner.’ He had eyes for no one else. His brown gaze swept appreciatively over the blonde blue eyed girl he held in his arms. He hadn’t even noticed Jemma. The pale blue eyes melted into the brown ones as he bent his head to steal a kiss.

Jemma discreetly moved into the dining room, no one noticed her. Giving them a couple of minute’s grace, she banged the shutter doors open on the serving hatch. ‘Anything else for the dining room table Abbey?’ asked Jemma; gazing through into the kitchen and feigning utter innocence.

Abbey grinned broadly at her as she handed over a dish of sprouts and Jemma widened her eyes making a face at her friend.

The evening meal was a jolly affair, everyone deliberately trying to block out the events of the night before. They fussed Pup a great deal more than was good for him, and claimed him the hero of the day, giving him special tit bits. Both the men thanked the girls a dozen times for their decisive actions in saving everyone, but Abbey, would take none of the praise insisting it was Jemma who was the heroine. Jemma explained that if it hadn’t been for Pup waking her up she couldn’t have done anything either, and insisted that it was he who had saved them all.

Everyone was tired and decided to retire early but not before Carl and Mark made a special trip around the house, checking and rechecking doors and windows were all shut, before they retired. Mark had arranged earlier in the day to move into one of the upstairs rooms and they all trundled upstairs together, saying goodnight as they dispersed to their own rooms.

The police came and investigated the fire, poking about in Mark’s rooms where quite a bit of the furniture had been badly damaged. They took everyone’s fingerprints and collected them together for evidence. Nothing found proved it to be arson and it wasn’t an electrical fault; the fire remained a complete mystery.

Later that week, Jemma arranged to let Mark take Abbey to the train station on his own. She knew that they needed the time alone to say good-bye to each other. Gratefully Abbey accepted her friend’s kindness.

Jemma knew her friend had become attached to Mark. She had told her so, but they were going to take their time, waiting to see if they still felt the same after being away from one another for a while, agreeing that they both wished to get better acquainted before taking it any further. Jemma knew both their stories and she thought they were being very wise agreeing wholeheartedly with her friend’s decision.

Abbey left reluctantly for England, to resume work, after making arrangements to return and spend Christmas with them all.

After Abbey’s return to England, Carl immediately became so busy again for some reason that Jemma wondered if she would ever have a chance to see him on her own again. Life became hectic for everyone at the vineyard for a while, as the business grew busier by the day towards the summer.

Just as life was getting busier small accidents and mishaps began happening at the vineyard one after the other. It was one morning about three weeks after the fire; Ettiene the employee who distilled the wine rang the house in a real frenzy. Jemma answered the phone. She listened intently but he yammered on so quickly that his English became mixed up with his French making it very difficult for Jemma to understand him. ‘Please Ettiene, slow down,’ she said bewildered, but he couldn’t and spouted on excitedly until Jemma finally said worriedly. ‘I’ll get Mark, for you.’ She put the phone down shaking her head and ran upstairs to get Mark. Mark was getting dressed after his shower and opened the door tugging a white tee shirt over his head.

‘What is it; Jemma?’ exclaimed Mark, his expression quickly turning to one of surprise when he saw Jemma outside his door when he‘d expected it to be Carl.

‘Sorry Mark, its Ettiene, he’s on the phone and I’m sorry but I can’t make head nor tail of what he’s saying, he sounds terrible upset.’ Mark followed her down the stairs and into the office where he swiftly picked up the phone. He listened intently to Ettiene for a few minutes then issued instructions quickly in French. Putting the phone down, he turned a troubled face to Jemma.

‘Etienne’s, opened up the winery and found the floor swimming in wine,’ he said worriedly. ‘I don’t know what’s happened, but we’ll need as many people as possible to help find the cask that’s leaking. I must go.’ Returning to the kitchen, Jemma related the news to Yvette. ‘You go help Mr. Robinson Jemma, I watch Alice.’ Jemma thanked her. Picking up the mop and bucket she ran after Mark.

It took a while to find the damaged cask. Mark had collected a couple of the gardeners, who usually worked on the rows of vines pruning and cutting the twining plants. They all searched the huge barrels of fermenting wine, working their way carefully around them looking for the leak. One of the men eventually found it and called Mark over to look. Someone had tampered with the barrel, drilling a couple of holes into the back. Ettiene managed to plug the holes in the huge barrel that was leaking and the men helped them to clean the winery. Everyone commented on the terrible waste of good wine and wondered who could have done such a dreadful thing.

The men stood talking it over and had reconstructed the crime several different ways before they finally agreed what must have happened. It became everyone’s decision that someone must have entered the winery and hidden themselves away until everyone had gone home, emerging later in the day to do their dirty work. The workers finally returned to their own work places, muttering passionately to themselves. The brothers were left alone to worry about the loss of a great deal of one of their best wines.

A couple of weeks later, the head gardener came to the house looking for Carl. They had a large powered mowing machine that was used for cutting the grass. When he had arrived for work, he’d received a nasty shock. Someone had started the machine in motion and deliberately left it to run amok among the rows of vines, cutting and damaging, several rows before it finally ran out of petrol. Mark went to see if anything was savable and found the gardeners working hard, trying to restore what they could of the damaged vines.

The gardeners appeared extremely upset by the whole affair, and Mark new it was none of their doing.

Carl and Mark had put hours of hard work into establishing their work Rotas and getting things at the vineyard running smoothly, all these mishaps were beginning to get very upsetting for everyone. After the mowing machine affair, the brothers decided to establish nightly patrols around the Caravan Park and vineyard, taking it in turns three hours on and three hours off, trying desperately to catch the person responsible for doing the damage. Since the night of the fire no one in the house slept properly anymore. Everyone walked around on tenterhooks, watching and wary, waiting for what would happen next. Mark had rung the police and asked if they could send a patrol at least once a night around the winery. The police were very understanding but said there appeared to be no obvious evidence to prove that anyone was causing the incidents.

Just before Christmas one of the caravans went up in flames, luckily, the Caravan Park was empty. Jemma and Yvette were in one of the rooms that overlooked the Caravan Park, cleaning. Yvette who was cleaning the windows saw a person leave one of the caravans and turned to Jemma saying in a bewildered tone.

’Jemma, I thought you said the Caravan Park was empty?’

’It should be,’ said Jemma. ‘We didn’t book anyone in with the entire funny goings on. Mark said not to take any bookings over the Christmas holidays. Why?’ she said, looking across at Yvette inquiringly.

Pointing at one of the caravans’ through the window with her duster, Yvette said. ‘Look, someone just came out of that one.’ Jemma left the cover she was readjusting on the bed and walked over to join Yvette at the window. Following Yvette’s pointing duster with her eyes, she stared out of the window eagerly, was this person who was doing all the damage would they be able to see who it was.

’There! See!’ Yvette pointed excitedly. They stood side by side and watched through the window as a figure ran quickly across the grass-covered space between two of the caravans. Silently they stood and stared disbelievingly as the black clad figure came from behind the other caravan and ran rapidly between the rest of the static caravans and out of the park. Suddenly they heard a loud bang. Two heads swiveled instantly to stare mesmerized at the first caravan, as flames gushed out of the windows.

Jemma ran down the stairs to the office as fast as she could. Intent on telephoning the fire brigade, Yvette followed in her footsteps. Unsure of what to do, she stood at her side while she phoned, at least giving support. Jemma turned a worried face to gaze at her. ‘I suppose I should phone Mark now and let him know what has happened.’ Her eyes said it all. Yvette’s face was a mixture of emotions as she gazed back at Jemma. Muttering softly under her breath in French, she returned upstairs to her cleaning.

The fire brigade arrived to put the fire out, leaving the caravan just a burnt shell. Mark arrived on the scene a few minutes later out of breath, and stood with Jemma watching the fire-fighters pack away the gear. The fire chief just happened to be the same person who had attended to the house fire and after examining the caravan. He walked over to Mark and Jemma shaking his head.

’It looks to me as if someone deliberately turned the gas tap on. This is the second time in a couple of months you’ve had a fire isn’t it Mr. Robinson?’

Mark heaved a great sigh. ‘Yes,’ Mark said the expression on his face grim as he answered the fireman. ‘I think someone is deliberately trying to ruin us.’ Mark and Jemma watched sadly as the fire engine drove away, turning to gaze dispiritedly at one another as they returned to the house.

Mark called the police in again. The police listened politely to Jemma, and Yvette’s story that they told about the person they had seen, and questioned them minutely on every detail. They still couldn’t find any evidence to help them find the person who was doing it.

By this time, Mark and Carl seemed convinced that Sonya was behind it all.

They decided to go it on their own and employ a private detective. Their idea was that a private detective would have more time to explore the accidents and maybe he could get the evidence that would incriminate her.

Jemma decided the long walks to the village were unwise in view of all that had happened and restricted her afternoon walks to the vineyard and Caravan Park. This would also give her a chance to question anyone she found wandering around the Caravan Park. She would be able to ask them if they had seen anyone hanging about that day. It would also keep them within calling distance, of the vineyard and the house, if they should need help.

It was three days before Christmas, when Mark took the car to meet Abbey at the railway station. It had been nearly four months since their last meeting and Mark could hardly wait for the train to pull up. They had written daily. Mark’s eyes frantically searched the carriage windows as the train slowed down until his eyes lit upon the fair features of Abbey.

The blue eyes met the brown, and electric currents flew between them as the doors opened. They stood for a timeless moment, staring deeply into one another’s eyes, before she passed her cases to Mark. Their eyes never left each other’s faces as Mark managing to bend his knee, placed the cases down on the platform. Then his arms reached up hungrily to gather her to him as she stepped onto the platform. Their lips finally met in a lingering kiss. Neither Mark nor Abbey heard the train pull out of the station. They stood in complete isolation from the world their bodies speaking the language of love. It was a while, before either wished to move away from the others loving embrace.

At last, Mark pulled away reluctantly and stood back to admire the girl he loved. She was warmly clad in a three-quarter-length jacket of soft fawn wool and dark brown trousers. The winter sun shone brightly and reflected off Abbey’s pale blonde shoulder length hair, giving her an ethereal quality. His heartbeat quickened as she gave him a soft smile and twirled around for his benefit, the soft hair flaring around the pretty face. ‘Well, will I do?’ She asked him, smiling broadly.

The look and tone of voice told her everything she wanted to know as he answered her. ‘Abbey, of course you’ll do. It’s so good to see you again but we must leave for home it gets dark earlier now and Jemma, and Carl, are expecting us.’

Her eyes smiled happily into his as she helped pick up the parcels. ‘I love you Mark,’ she whispered sexily into his ear. Her lips tenderly caressed the skin of his ear as he bent down to help her.

‘Come-on. You wicked woman’ he said his voice a caress. ‘The cars outside, and we have a whole three weeks to make up for the last four months.’ His voice had deepened suggestively as he answered her and the trill of her happy laughter thrilled him as they climbed into the car. They talked happily, gently teasing each other as Mark drove them home and just as they reached the last turn off before home Mark turned his head to smile at her ‘Just a couple more miles’ darling. We only have down Coggin Hill to go and we’ll be home.’

He put his foot on the brake as they approached the bad bend at the top of the hill. He knew the hill well, it was steep, and he liked to drop the gears into third. There was a large warning sign that stood on the bend-advising drivers to do this, and since the accident Mark was usually extra careful. He pushed his foot down on the brake pedal, nothing happened. Mystified, thinking it was because of his bad leg he stamped down on the pedal hard, then with his full weight behind it. Then again as he felt the panic rising swiftly inside him. Nothing was happening. He turned a worried face, to stare at Abbey. ‘I think the brakes have failed Abbey. It’s a bad hill. Wrap your arms around your face sweetheart, and hang on.’ The feeling of fear, all the terror of his nightmare’s rose inside him again, as he saw the frightened look appear on her face. ‘Don’t worry Abbey,’ he said, as confidently as he could. There’s a sandbank at the bottom of the hill for runaways. We’ll be all right.’

Putting all other thoughts out of his mind, Mark concentrated fully on guiding the car for the sandbank. Frantically he pushed and crashed the gear-stick into third, the muscles in his arms and legs straining under the unaccustomed usage. Desperately he steered the car for the sandbank. His breath came in quick short gasps and his heart pounded heavily in his chest. He struggled resolutely with the steering wheel with one arm, while his other hand reached out grabbing the hand brake and pulling it on hard. He could feel the sweat turn cold under his arms. Placing both hands together again on the steering wheel, he wrenched it hard over. The sliding wheels slowly began to respond. The muscles in his arms back and legs screamed desperately. The car tires were screeching, the rubber, sliding and slipping. Gradually slowly and gently the car settled with a soft squelching sound into the gritty sand. Mark turned off the ignition breathed a great sigh of relief and slumped over the wheel exhausted.

After a few minutes he released his seat belt and pulled the terrified girl into his arms. ‘It’s all right now Abbey. We’re safe darling.’ He rocked her gently, tenderly stroking the pale blonde hair away from the pale face. Her body was still shaking and she gazed gratefully into his worried face as he kissed her forehead.

They sat quietly holding each other for a little while, before they finally calmed down enough to climb out of the car. ‘We have to get home Abbey,’ said Mark worriedly. ‘Do you think you can make it? It’s about two miles from here to home. I should have brought the mobile with me.’ He cursed himself softly under his breath for not doing so.

‘It’s all right Mark. Don’t worry so; I can walk a couple of miles. I’m not as pathetic as all that.’ She opened the boot, lifted the parcels out and began tying them together. Mark put his arm around her shoulders, gratefully giving her a quick squeeze, before lifting the cases out of the boot.

Then giving each other a nonchalant grin they set off for the house.

‘I know some people think I’m weak and soppy, because of my colouring,’ said Abbey, as they trotted along the road. ‘But I’m much stronger than people think,’ she said turning to look up into his face and smile confidentially.

‘I can see that,’ he said as he grinned back warmly at her. ‘You just came through that accident like a trooper. I was the one nearly having hysterics,’ and suddenly he realised how much he loved her, he went quiet, and stopped walking.

She wondered why and stopped too; turning to face him as he caught up to her she smiled and began walking again.

‘Abbey, have you any idea how terrified I felt, the thought of losing you, or hurting you.’ He stopped talking again and took a deep breath. ‘Abbey, although we haven’t known each other very long, and I know this isn’t the right time or place’ he paused again and gulped hard, feeling the knot forming in his throat he deliberately took a step in front of her turning to face her at the same time. They stopped.

’Will you marry me Abbey?’ Quickly he spoke again before she could say the dreaded. ‘No.’ He was expecting. ‘Please Abbey, I know I’m not much to look at and I have a useless leg and a daughter.’ He said rushing the last few words out as he still expected her to say no. His face was a picture of emotions as he displayed his feelings for her to see.

She deliberately placed her parcels on to the floor, then placing her hands either side of his face she looked into the soft brown eyes that proclaimed his love for her, and spoke softly.

’Mark, I love you! It wouldn’t matter what your face looked like, or, even if you had no legs. I would still love, you.’ She gazed steadfastly into his brown eyes.

Mark’s heart felt as if it would burst at her words, he was so happy, and then he grinned mischievously at her.

‘Yes, but, you haven’t answered my question yet,’ and a big grin stretched slowly across his face from one side to the other as he gazed tenderly into her blue eyes.

‘Oh! You!’ she said. Then she squashed his face up with her hands and kissed his pursed lip’s possessively.

‘You won’t get away with that,’ he said laughter in his voice. ‘Just wait till I put these cases down!’

She laughed headily, feeling exhilarated and happy Mark had asked her to marry him. Before he could rid himself of the cases, she picked up her parcels and ran up the road leaving him to trail behind her

Abbey entered the house out of breath and giggling, merrily while poor Mark struggled behind her with the heavy cases.

‘Cheat!’ He gasped heavily as he entered the house struggling and panting. He placed the cases on the floor, and then collapsed in a heap onto a stool at the breakfast bar. ‘I can see I shall have to get fit,’ he said, after he’d recovered slightly and his breathing had begun to return to normality. ‘Or put a ball and chain on you,’ then he reached out and grabbed her hand quickly before she could escape.

She was in his arms and her mouth parted seductively, as he demanded her full co-operation.

A polite cough broke them apart; two pair of love glazed eyes turned to see Carl stood in the kitchen doorway. Mark gave his brother a quick happy grin as he released her to sit on a stool at the side of him, slightly embarrassed.

‘She’s promised to marry me,’ he grinned jubilantly at Carl then picked up her hand to place a kiss on her wrist as she smiled at him shyly.

‘Good for you Mark,’ said Carl, he smiled happily at the pair of them letting him know he was genuinely pleased for his brother, ‘But where the hell is the car? I saw you chasing Abbey, up the drive and wondered what on earth could have happened.’ Mark came down to earth with a bump and replied. ‘It was the brakes on the car. We couldn’t stop.’ He lifted his hands in the air and shrugged helplessly.

‘What! Not down Coggin hill?’ gasped Carl and shuddered involuntarily before he sat down as if he’d been pole axed.

‘My God Mark!! You could have both been killed! Did you crash?’ He asked in consternation. ‘Are you Hurt?’

‘No Carl. Don’t get excited. I managed to pull her onto the sandbank.’

Carl looked at his brother horrified and slumped further down onto the stool where he sat at the breakfast bar. ‘I don’t know what’s happening around this place,’ he said, his face a picture of utter misery as he gazed at his brother forlornly. ‘The brakes shouldn’t have gone on the car. It’s only a few weeks since it was in the garage for new brake shoes. I’ll get on the phone to the garage.’ He left the room for the office, shaking his head angrily, mystified at the strange events that kept taking place.

‘I thought you said Jemma would have a meal ready for us?’ said Abbey, looking around her, her arms held out, indicating the empty kitchen. ‘Where is she and where are Pup, and Alice? They can’t be here, or Pup would have barked?’ Two worried faces gazed at each other solemnly.

‘Perhaps Carl knows.’ Mark headed towards the office to ask him. Mark entered the office and Carl looked up from the phone. ‘They’ll collect the car tomorrow and check the brakes’ he said, putting the phone down and looking at Mark inquiringly.

‘Do you know where Jemma, and Alice, are Carl?’ he spoke very quietly.

Carl’s eyebrows shot up, and Mark saw the quick flash of fear in his eyes. They both headed for the staircase, and Carl shot swiftly up the stairs’ two at a time. A minute later he came galloping back down. ‘There not there,’ he gasped, staring worriedly at Mark as he came to the bottom step.

They walked slowly back into the kitchen together, each deep in their own thoughts, wondering where they could be. They viewed the things left on the kitchen side ready for the tea; it wasn’t like Jemma not to be there. Especially as she knew Mark and Abbey would be back.

Three startled faces turned towards the kitchen door as it opened and Pup bounded in, yapping and sniffing excitedly at everyone, while Jemma pushed the pram with Alice in over the step and smiled happily at everyone.

‘Hi Abbey! Everybody, did you have a good trip Abbey?’ she greeted them all.

‘Bey,’ said Alice struggling to get out of the pushchair.

‘Sorry I wasn’t here,’ she looked round wonderingly, at the glum looking faces that stared at her. ‘We had a bit of trouble on the Caravan Park so I had to go out, dinner won’t be long, it’s all ready to cook.’ Was it because the meal wasn’t ready, thought Jemma, feeling a little upset at their attitude towards her?

‘Not more trouble?’ Mark and Carl said together.

Jemma turned from the sink where she was rinsing the potatoes. ‘Oh, it wasn’t much. We think a child had found the stopcock for the water, and turned it off. I was the only one here who knew where it was and I couldn’t get hold of anyone else.’ She helped Alice out of the pram, again wondering why everyone sounded so upset. ‘I’ll put Alice, to bed and get on with the meal.’ She carried Alice up the stairs to put her to bed, puzzling at the atmosphere that had met her.

A couple of hours later, after Abbey had explained about the accident, while they prepared the meal, she realised why they had all been so upset.

After dinner they all moved into the sitting room. Carl left the room to fetch some wine from the cellar, and Mark after a nod from Carl collected some glasses.

’What’s, going on now?’ thought Jemma inquisitively, as she watched them scurrying around. Abbey and Mark sat close together on the settee, Mark’s arm draped possessively around Abbey’s shoulders. Both grinning at each other like a pair of Cheshire cats, as Carl filled their glasses, then standing up Carl raised his glass saying.

’To the happy couple may you have a wonderful life together,’ and he toasted them, as Jemma stared at the blissful couple sat together on the settee.

Abbey’s face had a pink tinge and a smile a mile wide and Mark grinned up at his brother like a cat who had just been at the cream.

’Mark, asked me to marry him,’ Abbey smiled radiantly across the room at her friend Jemma.

Jemma picked up her glass, ‘I guessed that. Well, here’s wishing you all the best, you both deserve it,’ and she sipped her wine genuinely pleased for them both.

After another drink and talking over the days’ happenings for a while, Jemma and Carl decided it was time to retire. Both glad to escape from the atmosphere, leaving the lovers together. Each returning to their own rooms, wishing they could have been the one, it had happened to.

Mark and Abbey sat talking for a while making plans for their future, before they followed in Carl and Jemma’s footsteps, making their way up the stairs to bed.

Mark walked Abbey to the door of her room, and, as she stretched out her arm to open the door, Mark slid his hand slowly along her arm and opened it for her. With his arm still around her, he squeezed her tenderly then edged her inside the room, closing the door softly behind them. ‘I told you Abbey. You wouldn’t escape me again.’ Mark’s whisper was deep, sexy, his breath soft, playing gently against the skin beneath her ear. Gently purposefully, he was melting her defences. She stood pressed up against the wall. His strong-arms imprisoning her with his solid warmth. He placed his mouth possessively over hers, taking her breath, his approach sensuous. His kiss, hard with desire, demanding, yet soft with the love he felt for her. He lifted his head to nuzzle into the soft skin of her throat beneath her ear. The smell and feel of her, setting his senses on fire, before he again covered her lips. This time with tiny butterfly kisses, that swiftly descended to her throat. The sound of Abbey’s quickened breathing, flamed his desire. Mark’s hands slid full of warmth and tenderness beneath the soft woollen jumper, sensuously caressing the soft skin of her breasts. Abbey’s heavy breathing turned to soft moans of pleasure as his hands softly caressed her body. Mark’s thumbs slowly circling the hardening nipples, before they glided around her back, to unclasp the silky bra. Sliding his hands down her body he gently lifted bra and jumper together over her head, dropping them carelessly to the floor, while his questing mouth sought the pulse at the base of her throat.

Abbey’s sensitive fingers, slid between the two of them, and unfastened the small round buttons on his shirt. To glide it gently back, revealing the solid width of his shoulders. Sensuously she spread her hands over the silky expanse of his chest, luxuriating, in the feel of hard muscle beneath the soft silky skin. Her hands sliding around his back to run her fingers down his backbone, causing him to arch his body, pressing the length of his male hardness to her. She felt him quiver slightly, as she unbuckled the leather belt at his waist, unclasping the fastener to slide the zip open.

Mark pushed her skirt over the rounded hips. The skirt and trousers fell unheeded to the floor, as Mark, picked her up in his arms and carried her to the bed.

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