CRIMSON HOUSE BOOKS
BY SUSANNA SHORE / HANNAH KANE
PARANORMAL AND CONTEPORARY ROMANCES, COSY MYSTERIES
Which Way to Love?
I don’t know why I thought turning my life upside down would save my marriage. But that was exactly what I was about to do.
I was standing outside an office block somewhere near Bishopsgate. I’m not very good at directions, but having looked it up on the map, I knew it was on the edges of the commercial centre that is the City of London. A taxi had brought me from the train station, but I had lost my bearings the moment we pulled away from the station and had, therefore, only the driver’s word that I was in the right place.
That, and the name of the company I was there for on the wall of the building, etched into an elegant brass plate.
As I watched the tail lights of my taxi disappear into distance, I got an absurd urge to run after it and demand it take me back. The revolving door that led inside the building seemed like an impossible obstacle. Behind it: the keys to my future happiness.
As you see, I was feeling fatalistic.
The building housed the headquarters of the International News Agency, and I was there for a job interview. I wasn’t sure anymore, however, that I wanted to take the first step to changing my life. I didn’t want to take any of the steps, actually. I didn’t want to go through that door, ride to the twelfth floor, and take my job interview. I didn’t want a new job, I didn’t want to give up my current job, I didn’t want to leave Oxford and move to London.
But I did want to keep Marcus.
That thought, and a group of suits wanting to get into the building past me, finally got me moving. I allowed the pull of the group to draw me inside and to a bank of lifts at the end of the lobby. I entered a lift with the men, the cage mercifully spacious enough to fit us all. As its doors closed with a quiet swoosh, shutting me inside, my stomach clenched in fear. This was it. No turning back now.
I tried to reason with myself that I didn’t have to go through with the interview. No one was forcing me. I didn’t actually need the job. But I didn’t believe myself. Deep down, I was convinced that my marriage stood and fell with this interview.
Staring at the metallic surface of the door that reflected my image back to me coppery and distorted didn’t help calm my anxiety either. It was as if the door was making a mockery of the competent image I wanted to present. I wanted to check my face in the mirror at the back of the cage to see if my lipstick really was running down my cheek—and I definitely hoped my ears weren’t actually doing a Dalí impression—but the suits—all tall men—blocked my view.
Just the same. Preening in front of witnesses wasn’t something I was prepared to do anyway. Not that I’m uptight or anything….
Fine, I am.
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.
Seeing the word ‘photographers’ written there made my heart jump.
My photojournalist husband wasn’t actually in the building, or in the country for that matter, so my reaction was irrational. Or not so much irrational as it was guilty. I was taking this step without Marcus’s knowledge and feared getting caught.
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,” I said. She turned to check her computer.
“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.
“Ah, yes, here,” 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, not very surprised to hear it.
I headed towards the hallway on the right as instructed and turned almost immediately to the left into a small waiting area that barely had room for 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. Clearly he believed that the job was his for taking.
I wondered what he saw when he looked at me—if he ever got past my breasts, which he seemed unduly fascinated with. I have a short and curvy figure, which I inherited from my mother, but reactions like this young man’s—and the difficulty of finding clothes that fit—always made me wish 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 the young man see my long, blond hair, currently in an elegant bun, and immediately think I must be featherbrained? I got that reaction often enough too. It hadn’t made my life in academia any easier back when I thought I would become a professional historian. No one believed I had a PhD.
If he ever reached my face, would he think I was old? I was thirty-one, but for someone straight out of college that must seem ancient. Then again, the students at the university had tended to hold me as one of them; my small size made them believe I was younger. I don’t think my delicate face showed many signs of aging yet. There were no lines around my greenish-brown eyes or my mouth. I’m not beautiful—pretty at best—but I have arching brows slightly darker than my hair that I think make me look sophisticated, and I’m definitely happy that I 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, I would never have been taken seriously in that case.
Abandoning my fruitless musing, I returned my eyes to the magazine. I managed only barely to keep my hands from tugging my skirt lower to better cover my legs from the young man’s intruding eyes.
I was very nervous. I couldn’t concentrate on what I was reading, but since the glossy magazine had more advertisements than actual text in it, it didn’t really matter. It was something to occupy my hands while I waited.
It couldn’t occupy my mind, though.
What am I doing here?
I knew I would be perfect for the job, but was that any reason to seek a position in the same news agency as my husband, and behind his back, even? What would Marcus think?
What am 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.
Really. Why am I here?
The salary was better, although that wasn’t a very weighty reason, even if I didn’t have Marcus’s money to fall back on. However, if we divorced, I wouldn’t have his money to rely on anymore. Then again, I wouldn’t want to work there in that case. I refused to entertain the possibility.
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.
So ... that’s why I was there.
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 big and rather intimidating room for my interview, I did it with steady legs, and my hand was cool when I shook it with the three men conducting it.
I sat on a lone chair in front of a large table, making sure the hem of my skirt didn’t hike above my knees. I was wearing a suit that made me look smart without enhancing my curves overly much; the skirt reached below the knees and the blouse underneath the jacket was properly buttoned. I thought I looked very competent and not like I was trying to get the post with my physical assets.
Obviously, I had some hang-ups about my body.
“So, Dr Wright,” the man in the middle began. He was in his late forties and wore business-casual and spectacles, and I had already forgotten his name. I did, however, approve 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. Of course, I talked about the possibilities the post offered for me and what I could offer them in return, and not of my wish to save my marriage. 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? If you think I could have learned the same with a minor degree, you might consider that 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.
“What I meant was that the position is for a junior correspondent. They’re usually in their early to mid-twenties when they start 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 position 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? But since I had listed him as the next of kin in my application, they had naturally made the connection. Briefly, 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.
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.
Seriously, the three of them would have made brilliant poker players.
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 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 from somewhere far up.
I lifted my gaze and saw a tall, messy-haired blond man in his mid-thirties standing in front of me. His worn jeans covered powerful legs, and a T-shirt was stretched over his shoulders rather impressively. He had an amused smile on his attractive face. I was too tired to care for his opinion of me—or to admire his looks for that matter. I simply took the offered chocolate; it would help.
I peeled off the wrapper 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—a nice sound—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 and continued. “Really, he did. Not out here, of course. He made it to the toilet. But we thought it might be best to prevent something like that from happening again. Hence the chocolate.”
Hmm, I guess the young man hadn’t been quite as self-confident as he had appeared.
The thought fortified me and I straightened up to sit properly on the sofa to take 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. Great.
I gathered myself hastily and stood up. “Thanks again for the chocolate,” I said to the man politely. “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 had 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. The young woman couldn’t possibly hold up any better than the young man against the onslaught of the interviewers.
“And next time, Jordan,” someone said good-naturedly, “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 heard a male voice drawl, “Niiiice,” behind me as I headed back to the lifts, but I didn’t turn to look at who it was. I needed something stronger than chocolate, and fast.
In the end, I didn’t get drunk but had a nice lunch on Marcus’s expense in a fine restaurant near the agency. It was a small expense for him, but it made me uneasy. Ever since our estrangement I’d been reluctant to dip into his pockets, deep though they were. However, my own finances were a bit strained. It was two days to payday and I had almost emptied my bank account buying my new suit. A burger place would have better suited my purse, but I felt I deserved something better after the ordeal I had just been through, so I had put my scruples aside.
I could have used my credit card just as well, of course. But I had a hang-up about living on credit too, no matter the sum or the cause. That had nothing to do with my marriage. My childhood made me paranoid about money.
I was born to wealth and rank, crème de la crème and all that nonsense, a younger child and only daughter of Viscount Hawke, a cherished granddaughter of the Earl of Linwood. Unlike some—or most—British aristocracy, Grandfather had actually managed to stay wealthy even while maintaining the family seat, a Georgian manor from the mid-eighteenth century in the south of England. I lacked nothing growing up. My father did his best to pamper me with ponies and other luxuries a little girl like me took for granted.
That was, up until he ceased doing his best.
When I was nine, Grandfather died and Father came into his title and wealth. It was as if a previously unknown person had been unleashed. He went completely wild. He had always been outgoing and charming—although I learned just how charming he was only when I was much older—but now he went into overdrive. With a couple of years of extravagant living and bad investments, he squandered his inheritance, leaving us, 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 to the nearest public stable. To make things worse, some of his inheritance was entailed and he was obliged to maintain the family seat with money he no longer had.
Then we no longer had our father. He didn’t die, though that might have made things easier all around. He left with a twenty-something heiress who at least got him out of his debts, but it 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 house in Bournemouth of all places, just because it was close to where we had lived before. Father didn’t hang about the old place, though, preferring to jet-set in London and all over Europe with his girlfriends and occasional wives. Mother built a new life for us, taking a job as a doctor’s assistant that paid the rent and the essentials. The rest was paid with what little Father gave her as alimony—when he remembered to pay it.
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—something most aristocracy learned by necessity after the wars. Fred, for his part, learned how to make money and how to hold onto it too. He’s an investment banker now and makes the most of his bonuses and big salary. He made a deal with Father that gave him stewardship of the family manor and everything the position entailed, from taxes to fixing the leaking roofs. That way there might still be a roof over the place by the time Fred inherits it.
Whereas Fred was bent on restoring the family name and fortunes so that he could be proud of his title 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. The lesson was hard to learn though.
Attending an exclusive girls’ school on a trust fund with daughters of wealthy pop stars and investment bankers who could buy anything they wanted wasn’t easy. Trying to emulate my friends’ example and lifestyle, I had lived beyond my means before I even noticed it. Working through summer holidays so that I could pay my debts made me more prudent, and I hadn’t shaken off that mentality during the five years of my marriage to Marcus.
If I had thought Marcus would notice my luxurious lunch, I might have used my own credit card after all. I definitely didn’t think he would mind, no matter how estranged we were. But I was proved wrong two days later, when I got an e-mail from him.
Why were you in London in the middle of the week?
Before Marcus, my life had been fairly ordinary despite my privileged background and the struggle to keep up appearances. I wasn’t the prettiest girl, or the most popular; I wasn’t the best student, and I never won awards for outstanding performance in anything; I wasn’t the worst or the ugliest either. However, in the husband department I’d really lucked out and my life had changed as if by magic into a fairy-tale.
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 to supplement his skills as an aspiring top-range war photographer, along with Arabic for a year. The actual skills needed for staying alive in conflict zones he had learned in practice already.
I was immediately attracted to him. Being uptight, that had never happened with any man, but his looks alone were enough to make me lower my defences. Or, actually, lose them completely. At six foot two, he is almost a foot taller than me, with a strong, wide-shouldered, sinewy body that makes his height look truly impressive. He is handsome too with a defined jawline and a straight nose, beautiful eyes of liquid chocolate, and a killer smile. His dark hair is always in disarray though; he just can’t be bothered to groom it properly.
Yet it wasn’t only his incredible looks that made me notice him. 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’m not very forward when it comes 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.
Mortified, I collected my clothes hastily. “I don’t know what got into me. It’s not really like me at all to sleep with someone I’ve only just met.”
Marcus ignored my embarrassment. He was lying naked among the crumpled sheets, his dark hair tousled and his long limbs stretched, relaxed. He ran his eyes over my naked body and a lazy smile spread on his face when he noticed my nipples bud in arousal, but I couldn’t help it. He looked so gorgeously sexy lying there, shamelessly erect again.
“Your body knows exactly what went into you,” he teased, and when I blushed he reached out and pulled me back to bed. 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 means 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 what might be the matter. But fearing to hear the truth, I clammed up. I’ve never been good at talking about my feelings anyway; an offshoot of my upbringing and background, no doubt.
I was good at listening, however. The problem was I listened to the wrong people: my two best friends, Joan and Poppy.
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