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CRIMSON HOUSE BOOKS

 

BY SUSANNA SHORE

PARANORMAL AND CONTEMPORARY ROMANCES, COSY MYSTERIES

 

Tracy Hayes, P.I.

Two-Natured London

Contemporary romances


 

Which Way to Love?

Chapter One Chapter Two

Chapter One

When you’re about to turn your life upside down to save your marriage, you don’t want any last minute second guessing. Was this the right move? What if he doesn’t love me anymore? Am I in the right place…?

The modern high-rise in Bishopsgate at the edges of the City in London looked as out of place among the historical buildings as I felt. A taxi had brought me from the train station, and as I watched its tail-lights disappear into traffic, I got an absurd urge to run after it and demand it take me back. But I was here to secure my future happiness, so I faced squarely the revolving door that guarded the entrance of the building and went in.

The building housed the headquarters of the International News Agency, and I was here for a job interview. I had a secure job as a journalist in Oxford, but this was where my husband worked. If I wanted to keep Marcus, I needed to take this step to bring us closer.

I followed a group of suits to a bank of lifts at the end of the lobby, and entered a cage with them. As its doors closed with a quiet swoosh, shutting me inside, my stomach clenched in fear. This was it. No turning back now.

I stared at the metallic surface of the door that reflected my image back to me coppery and distorted, as if making a mockery of the competent image I wanted to present. My lipstick seemed to be running down my cheek, and I definitely hoped my ears weren’t actually doing a Dalí impression. It didn’t help to calm my nerves.

I was the only person to exit the lift on the twelfth. The lobby of the news agency was a windowless space, but artificial daylight, warm colours and healthy potted plants made it look welcoming. A sign on the wall informed me that the hallway to the right led to the domestic news department and the hallway to the left led to the visual department. The latter made my heart jump.

Marcus.

My photojournalist husband wasn’t actually in the building, or in the country for that matter, so my reaction was irrational. Or maybe I was just feeling guilty. I was taking this step without his knowledge.

Across the floor from the lifts, under a large agency logo, was an elegant hardwood information desk, behind which a young receptionist was sitting, staring intently at her computer. I took a deep breath and walked to her, and smiled when she lifted her gaze at me. She didn’t recoil in horror, so I took it to mean my lipstick was in its appointed place and that my ears weren’t a Surrealist mess. It calmed me enough to speak with a steady voice.

“I’m here for a job interview, for the position of junior domestic correspondent.”

She turned to check her computer. “Name, please?”

“Audrey Wright.” My mother had been a great admirer of Audrey Hepburn, hence the name. My four-years-older brother, Fred, was named after Fred Astaire, another favourite of hers, although Father insisted he was named after his great uncle Alfred.

The girl found my name. “Go down that hallway and take the first left. Unfortunately they’re a little behind schedule, so it may take something like a half an hour before it’s your turn.”

I nodded in thanks. Following her instructions, I ended up into a small waiting area that barely had room for the two low sofas that were facing each other over a coffee table. A young man practically fresh out of university was already sitting on one sofa, so I chose the other.

Since there was nothing else to look at other than the young man and that didn’t really tempt me, I picked up a magazine from the table and started skimming through it. I peered at him discreetly over its rim though, and was rather dismayed by what I saw. He was sitting there so relaxed, oozing self-confidence, checking me out like it was his God-given right. There wasn’t much to see. I have a short and curvy figure, which I inherited from my mother, but I’d always wished I had my namesake’s tall, willowy body. Instead, I’m a dab of a woman, just shy of five foot three, who has to rely on high heels and a good posture to make herself noticed.

Did he see my long, blond hair, currently in an elegant bun, and think I was empty-headed? I got that reaction often. It hadn’t made my life in academia easy back when I thought I would become a historian. No one believed I had a PhD. Then again, students had tended to hold me as one of them, as my small size had made them believe I was their age. Not that there were many lines around my greenish-brown eyes or my mouth even now, and I hoped I still didn’t look my current age of thirty-one.

At least I’d inherited my father’s straight nose and not my mother’s bud that had made her look like a porcelain doll: innocent and perpetually surprised. Combined with my size and delicate features, I would never have been taken seriously.

Abandoning my fruitless musing, I returned my eyes to the magazine, but I couldn’t concentrate on it. At least turning the pages was something to occupy my hands with.

It couldn’t occupy my mind.

What was I doing here?

I knew I’d be perfect for the job, but was that any reason to seek a position in the same place as my husband, and behind his back, even? What would Marcus think?

What was I thinking?

Unable to calm my nerves, I bolted up, startling the young man, and headed to a nearby loo. I ran cold water over my hands, hoping that it would take away my budding nausea, and stared at my reflection with unseeing eyes.

Why was I here?

The salary was better, although that wasn’t a very weighty reason. Marcus came from money and I didn’t lack anything. But if we divorced, I wouldn’t have his money to rely on anymore. Then again, I wouldn’t want to work here in that case. But I refused to entertain the possibility. This had to work.

The work itself would be more challenging than my current job at Morning Herald, a small paper in Oxford, and, most importantly, the agency offered career opportunities home and abroad that simply couldn’t be had in a small paper. After years of being cooped up in Oxford, my soul yearned for larger fields.

That’s why I was here.

Calm once again, I returned to the waiting area that was now empty. I had to wait for quite some time for my turn, but I didn’t panic again. Not even when a woman approximately ten years younger than me joined me in the waiting room, looking as self-confident as the young man had. When it was my turn to enter the interview room, I did it with steady legs, and my hand was cool when I shook it with the three men there.

“So, Dr Wright,” the man in the middle began once I’d sat on a lone chair in front of their large table. I approved of his use of my title. It showed they were taking me seriously. “Tell me why you are applying for this post.”

Fortunately, that was the only question I felt able to answer at the moment. More questions followed and I was allowed quite a space for answering them. No wonder the interviews had fallen behind schedule.

Then he asked the question I really didn’t want to hear. “You have a PhD. Don’t you feel over-educated for the position you are seeking?” It wasn’t a hostile question, but it annoyed me just the same, because I was asked it so often: ‘Why get a PhD if you’re only going to be a journalist.’

“I don’t think there is such a thing as being over-educated,” I answered calmly, hiding my irritation. “In my opinion, one can never have enough knowledge or skill. But I can tell you that I didn’t spend all those years getting the degree for the knowledge I gained, but for learning how to gain that knowledge. And what better skill is there for a correspondent? My PhD demonstrates that I can follow through on more demanding tasks than just the bare minimum, and that I have the ambition to do so too.”

I was actually quite pleased with the answer, but the interviewer didn’t indicate in any way that he was impressed. He just asked another question calculated to get a rise out of me.

“You don’t think you are too old for this position?”

This time I couldn’t hold my tongue. “No woman likes to hear she’s too old at thirty-one,” I said indignantly. He smiled. It was the first proper reaction from him.

“This is a position for a junior correspondent. They’re usually in their early to mid-twenties and have far less experience. You don’t think the position might be a bit beneath your skills?”

An image of the young man flashed in my mind and I felt bad for sneering at him. I gave the interviewer the only answer I could, hoping I didn’t sound too desperate for the job. “That was the only post you had open. But I’m willing to apply for more challenging positions as well. As it is, I hope you won’t let my age be an obstacle. Rather, you might think that I already know most of what goes with the job, unlike someone fresh out of college. I won’t need as much training.”

He nodded, but moved on. “I went through your portfolio and noticed that it has quite a few photographs as well. Would you like to tell me something about them?”

I had no idea where he was going with the question so I gave him a general answer. “I’ve been working for a small paper where there aren’t that many photographers so the reporters have to take their own pictures quite often. I added some in my portfolio to show you the range of my skills.” As he nodded again I sighed in relief. Too early.

“The reason I ask is that I noticed your husband works for us as a photojournalist. You didn’t mention him when you listed your reasons for wanting to work here. Didn’t he have anything to do with your decision?”

My heart sank. Why did he have to bring Marcus into this? I entertained the notion of telling him the truth, that we were on a brink of divorce and didn’t really communicate anymore, but I doubted he was interested in my domestic situation.

“Naturally, my husband has a lot to do with why I applied for this post. He has always been happy to work here, which tells me that you are a good employer. And through him I’ve learned how a news agency differs from a newspaper as a workplace, and I find it very interesting. But as he’s not here at the moment, he really didn’t have that great a say in it.” That sounded a bit curt, so I amended. “He’s been assigned to Kabul for the past thirteen months.”

He nodded again, skimming through my photographs, but nothing indicated whether he liked them or not. Admittedly, I wasn’t there for a post as a staff photographer. I wasn’t good enough a photographer to work for a news agency famous for the quality of its photojournalism, but it would have been nice to know what he thought of them. He closed my portfolio and I got the impression that the interview was over. Fortunately I didn’t get up, because one of the other two men, neither of whom had spoken a word yet, began his questions.

In French!

The change in language took me by surprise and I struggled to give him a proper answer—if indeed it was proper; I wasn’t at all sure what had been asked. But like the first man, he went on in French without giving away any reaction to my answers. And when he finished, the third man began, switching to German. This time I had anticipated the change, but it still wasn’t easy to speak a language so different from French and I may have used words I invented myself. But the German-speaking chap didn’t lose his cool either.

I could only be grateful there wasn’t a fourth interviewer in the room, because while my resume said I also spoke Italian, there was no way I would have got through an interrogation like this in that language.

Then the ordeal was finally over. Amazingly, my legs held when I got up and exited the room through a different door than I had come in. I had actually wondered what had happened to the young man before me, as he never came back from his interview, but now I knew.

The moment the door closed behind me, I sank exhausted into the nearest seat. How on earth could a job interview be so taxing? I leaned backwards, resting my head on top of the low backrest, and tried to gather enough strength to get back up. But all I could do was to stare at the ceiling.

Out of nowhere, a chocolate-bar appeared in front of my face, dangled between two fingers like a fish before a dolphin. “Here, eat this. It’ll help,” a deep male voice said next to me.

A tall, messy-haired blond man in his mid-thirties was standing in front of me. His worn jeans covered powerful legs, and his T-shirt stretched over his shoulders rather impressively. He had an amused smile on his attractive, slightly rugged face. I was too tired to care for his opinion of me—or to admire his looks. I simply took the offered chocolate and sunk my teeth into the chocolate in a very unladylike manner.

“Thank you,” I said gratefully after devouring half of it. “Are you the official rescue squadron?”

He laughed and shook his head. “Not really. We’ve been watching people like you appear through that door the whole morning, and trust me, you’re the fittest so far. In more ways than one,” he added with a crooked grin that made a dimple appear on one cheek. “Congratulations. The previous guy actually vomited.”

The chocolate-bar stopped midway to my mouth as I froze in surprise. He laughed again. “Truly. So we thought it might be best to prevent something like that from happening again. Hence the chocolate.”

I guess the young man hadn’t been quite as self-confident as he had appeared.

I straightened up and took stock of my surroundings. I was in a waiting area similar to the first one, currently being stared at by at least half a dozen curious faces. I gathered myself hastily and stood up.

“Thanks again for the chocolate. It really helped. I don’t feel like vomiting at all.”

The people watching me looked disappointed. Some money started changing hands and I realised they’d been laying bets on the odds. I didn’t know whether to be amused or annoyed, but decided that amused was the better option. “There should be at least one more applicant after me, so maybe you’ll see some action yet,” I told them helpfully.

“And next time, Jordan, don’t go offering any chocolate to them. That might be considered rigging.” Everyone laughed and started to file out of the waiting room, leaving me to find my way out on my own. I needed something stronger than chocolate, and fast.

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Chapter Two

In the end, I didn’t get drunk after all, but had a nice lunch on Marcus’s expense. Resorting to his money had made me uneasy from the start, and doubly so now that we were on a brink of divorce. So I felt apprehensive, but I deserved it after the ordeal I’d been through. Besides, my own account was all but empty this close to the payday. He wouldn’t mind, even now.

I had quite a few hang-ups about wealth, actually, so it might come as a surprise that I came from money too. But unlike Marcus’s father—and now his brother Matt after him—my family hadn’t managed to keep our money. Or, rather, my father hadn’t. Not that he had tried very hard. He was outgoing and charming, and lived beyond his means even before inheriting the bulk of his wealth when I was nine. Then he went through that within a couple of years with extravagant living and bad investments, gambling and parties. We were left, if not destitute, then at least not very well off. Compared to our previous lifestyle, it was a shock. I went from owning my own pony to barely affording bus fare. Then he left with a twenty-something heiress who at least got him out of his debts, but cost him his family. I hated him quite as passionately as I had loved him earlier, for leaving me and hurting Mother.

Mother moved me and Fred to a terrace in Bournemouth of all places, just because it was close to where we had lived before, the centuries old family manor. She built a new life for us, taking a job as a doctor’s assistant that paid the rent and the essentials. Father seldom remembered to pay for our support.

Luckily, Grandfather had known his son well and had taken precautions in his will. He had established a trust fund for our school fees that paid Fred and me through exclusive private schools and Oxford, giving us an education we otherwise couldn’t have afforded.

So we grew up in a schizophrenic existence of near poverty and exclusive surroundings. I learned the art of being elegantly poor. Fred, for his part, learned how to make money and how to hold onto it too. He was an investment banker, and with his bonuses and big salary he had made a deal with Father that gave him stewardship of the family manor that was entailed, so Father couldn’t sell it. With him supervising the place, there might still be a roof over it by the time he inherits it.

Whereas Fred was bent on restoring the family name and fortunes, so that he could be proud of his name one day, I chose the opposite approach. I held my head high in my hand-me-downs at school and acted like everything was just as it ought to be, thank you very much. And I hadn’t shaken off that mentality during the five years of my marriage to Marcus.

I met Marcus in Oxford when I was working on my PhD. I was twenty-five and he was twenty-nine, but we were both attending a first-year class in political science. I needed it for my degree and he was studying it for a year to supplement his skills as an aspiring top-range war photographer. The actual skills needed for staying alive in conflict zones he had learned in practice already.

I was immediately attracted to him. At six foot two, he was almost a foot taller than me, with a strong, wide-shouldered, sinewy body. He was handsome too with a defined jawline and a strong nose, beautiful eyes of liquid chocolate, and a killer smile. His dark hair was always in disarray, as he just couldn’t be bothered to groom it properly. He seemed more mature than the men I usually came across. He radiated calm self-confidence that stated he could take care of anything and everything. Including me.

If it had been up to me, the class would have been the only thing we shared. I wasn’t very forward when it came to the opposite sex, but Marcus wasn’t as uptight. He took a seat next to me and introduced himself. After the class he invited me for a cup of coffee and I accepted. From the first smile he flashed at me, my brain had short-circuited and I would have agreed to anything he said. Things progressed smoothly from there, and to my great embarrassment I woke up in his bed the next morning. I never really left it after that. A year later we were married.

We had a wonderful marriage, even though Marcus’s job kept us apart quite a lot. He was based in London, but his job took him all over the world, to conflict zones too to my distress. He had a small flat in London where he could stay when he didn’t have time to commute, and I stayed with him there every now and then even though we had made our permanent home in Oxford.

He bought us a beautiful house we furnished together with love. He needed a safe haven where he could retire from the world, and I was that. I kept home for him, but he participated too, learning how to cook and vacuum; in return, I learned how to photograph. He provided me with a secure environment where I could finish my PhD in peace, and I provided him with a happy home where he could relax after the horrors he had witnessed.

And then something went wrong.

At first I thought it was because Marcus’s work was stressing him. Even when he wasn’t shooting in conflict zones, there was a lot of travelling involved and tight schedules to follow. A month spent photographing the World Cup finals might sound like a dream job to some, but it basically meant a month with little or no sleep for the photographers.

We were drifting apart. We had been best friends in everything for years, but now we didn’t do anything together anymore. No more country sojourns with cameras, no more theatre evenings or movie nights at home with junk food, cuddled up on the sofa. He spent more and more time in London instead of returning to Oxford, and I didn’t go over there as often as I used to.

In hindsight, I should have sat down with him and talked about it. But fearing to hear the truth, I clammed up. I’d never been good at talking about my feelings anyway, an offshoot of my upbringing and background. But I was good at listening. The problem was I listened to the wrong people: my two best friends, Joan and Poppy.

First year at the university, I joined a student choir. There, I met Joan and Poppy. They were unlike my friends from school and I was drawn to their energy and unwavering principles from the start.

Poppy was a math student from Leeds on a scholarship, active in student politics in the socialists’ ranks. After graduation, she got a place in an insurance company and let her political career go, but that didn’t mean she’d let her opinions become less sharp. In her work she saw all kinds of sad fates that made her fume about the injustice of it all at least once a week. A tall woman with a boyish body and flaming red hair, she was very impressive when angry.

Joan was the outwardly calmer of the two, round and rosy, a local girl who studied to become a teacher, but she only lasted in that job for about three years. After marrying her George, she stayed home to look after him and the two kids they’d had in rapid succession. At home she was ruled by her husband, but whether it was the city council refusing to put traffic lights into dangerous crossings or bankers with their too-large bonuses, she too was prone to giving her opinion about anything and everything.

We became friends despite their insistence that I’d had it easy in life. They took it onto themselves to educate me about the realities of life, and at first that was what kept us together. I followed them to political events and homeless shelters, eager to see what life had to offer for those who truly had nothing.

Over the years, we formed a tight group that called each other almost daily, listened to each other’s sorrows, and helped each other the best we could. We got along well as long as I didn’t bring up anything that would have reminded them about my privileged status; that got them started faster than anything.

In their mind, there was a vast social divide between us. It wasn’t about money—I had none before my marriage. It was about the sense of ancestry, and about knowing where one came from. And it was about a state of mind that maintained that everything was well and that we would prevail. Joan and Poppy, for their part, had a worldview that everything was rotten and things would only get worse. I don’t think they envied me as such. They just couldn’t understand how I could hold my head high with only the pretence of past glory to support it.

While I could keep my background from marring our friendship, I couldn’t stop my marriage to Marcus from doing it. Joan and Poppy hated him from the start. They tried to paint him as a playboy and a cheat when we were still dating, saying that he had swept me off my feet all too easily. And when that failed, they started saying how he had turned an independent woman into a complacent little pooch with his money.

“You used to have principles,” Poppy would complain. “You helped at the shelter and showed genuine concern. Now it’s only corporate dinners and Caribbean vacations for you.”

It was both true and untrue. I’d stopped doing volunteer work when I needed to concentrate on finishing my dissertation, so that had nothing to do with Marcus. But we did participate in corporate dinners. Marcus’s family business was run by his two brothers, Matthew and Lucas, but we couldn’t completely escape from doing our share. And the vacations were essential for Marcus after gruesome stints to Iraq or famine-ridden parts of Africa. Not that I minded them myself.

But they were my friends and I needed to have someone with whom to share my worries when Marcus was away in some horrible part of the world. Despite their acerbic natures, they were good at putting me at ease. And when things started to go wrong in my marriage, they were who I listened to.

Around the time Marcus and I were growing apart, Poppy and Joan started hinting again that Marcus was being unfaithful. This time I was ready to believe them. Eventually, I couldn’t take the insecurity anymore, and so I confronted him with it outright. I picked the worst possible moment during a minor argument and the fight blew out of proportions. To my astonishment, he accused me of infidelity in turn.

“I know you’ve been spending long nights with your colleague. I know you’ve kissed him and God knows what else.”

His words floored me, quite literally, and I sank into a nearest chair. My reaction was all he needed for confirmation. He stormed out of the house and didn’t return. He was a strong-tempered man, but he had never done that before. A week later, he came home only to announce that he had accepted a yearlong assignment in Kabul, Afghanistan, for his agency.

“We need to be apart for a while,” he said. “I don’t want to divorce just yet, but this way we can think things through in peace.” He wouldn’t listen when I tried to tell him that I hadn’t been unfaithful. He said he was too upset to deal with it.

His accusation wasn’t without merit, which had made me act guiltily. A colleague at the university had, indeed, kissed me. We had been working on a joint article for weeks and our evenings had grown late, so he had walked me home almost every night. I hadn’t thought anything of it until one evening he made a pass at me and kissed me before I had a chance to react. I made my stand clear with him and he let me be, and with some embarrassment we finished the article without further incident. Someone must have told Marcus about it though, a neighbour perhaps, which explained his reaction, but not why he wouldn’t talk about it.

The year apart was horrible. I feared for Marcus’s safety constantly and grieved for our estrangement that only got worse because of the distance. We barely communicated. Phone connections were bad—if he wanted to call in the first place—and he wasn’t allowed to use social media due to security fears. All I got were daily e-mails informing me that everything was fine on his end.

A bomb explosion near here. I’m OK. M.

The short notes didn’t contain anything personal, but by mutual agreement we decided to keep things that way. During his brief R&R sessions every ten weeks or so, we pretended everything was well so he could recharge his batteries.

But we were like strangers during his weeklong stays. I would pick him up from the RAF base at Brize Norton just outside Oxford where the only flights from Kabul landed, envying the military wives waiting with me outside the gates who were getting their husbands home for good. After a brief greeting—warm, because there were witnesses—we would drive home in silence. It took at least a couple of days before he had unwound enough to face the world again. Until then, he just painted. Painting was his true outlet.

At nights, we would lie in our shared bed side by side, not touching. That is, not until he fell asleep. Then I would satisfy my need for closeness by pressing against him and silently holding him. The night before he was about to leave again, we would make love; a silent, bafflingly tender joining that made me want to cry afterwards. The next day, I would drive him back to the airbase and everything would start all over again.

Meanwhile, I was keeping up appearances of a happy marriage. I didn’t want Marcus’s family to know that I had pushed him to such a dangerous place, and I definitely didn’t want Joan and Poppy to know. Marcus played along when he was home, as long as there were other people present. Sometimes I wanted to invite people over simply to experience it.

Then three crises happened in rapid succession. First, I ended my stalled academic career to become a fulltime journalist. Joan and Poppy couldn’t understand why I would want to throw my PhD away and let me know that in no uncertain terms. Marcus said I could do what felt the best.

The second crisis was more permanent. My mother died in a car accident. I hadn’t even realised I’d been relying on her silent support until it was gone.

The last blow Marcus dealt himself. When his year was nearing its end, he e-mailed me and told me he had signed on for six more months, expecting me simply to accept it. But I got furious, like I seldom do. I wrote him a scathing e-mail, line after line about everything that was grieving me. It felt great, almost cathartic. And then in the end I didn’t send it. I only told him to be careful.

But I had finally been shaken awake, forced to take stock of everything that had been troubling me. Our life couldn’t continue the way it had. We could either end everything or we could work things out and save our marriage.

And I had six months to do it.

You can preorder Which Way to Love? on Amazon and Smashwords

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