Yorke Millen sat back and viewed the letter on the desk in front of him. How, in the present circumstances, was he going to manage the next few months as temporary head teacher? Being deputy head was fair enough, the buck didn't stop with you. But now, he was standing in for Gordon Rafter, the actual head, who had suffered a heart attack just over a month earlier, and school problems were multiplying.
He knew he could manage the everyday running of Barnside Middle School. The staff was well motivated, if a little apprehensive, currently, but they were most supportive. Yorke picked up the letter to read again about the big problem he had inherited, when s a gentle knock at the door had him hesitating. The school secretary, Tina Lorder, poked her steely grey coiffure around it.
"In the mood for a member of the press? The Enquirer," she asked.
Yorke frowned. The Enquirer was the local area newspaper, which, like any newspaper, was eager to latch on to any hint of bother.
"What could he want?" he mused out loud. “As if I couldn’t guess.”
"It's a lady," Tina said, and her lips tightened. "Karen Marking."
That had Yorke sitting up straight, his wife, Carol's untimely death, three years earlier, instantly on his mind. "Oh, you said the Enquirer."
Tina shrugged, her eyes admitting her own surprise, "Apparently, that's who she's with now."
Discomforted, Yorke wondered what she could want. In no way did he fancy stirring up cruel memories. Karen Marking had been the presenter of a television show doing a piece on drink driving, shortly after Carol's death. Without realising that the trauma of that time was still with him, he had foolishly accepted an invitation to take part.
He recalled sitting uncomfortably in the studio, mindless of the cameras on him, while this round faced, slender, young woman, outlined the circumstances of his wife being struck by a car driven by a drunk driver.
Yorke, with emotion building inside him once more, had been only vaguely aware of Karen Marking asking him quietly, "Mr Millen, do you think that seven years was an adequate sentence?"
On a shuddering breath, eyes down, he had replied, "Seven bullets in his sick brain wouldn't have been enough. Nothing would." That said he broke down completely and was guided off air. What he did recall was Karen Marking's show of understanding and sensitive empathy.
But now, successful television presenter to local newspaper seemed a strange career move, but burying the apprehension that old wounds might be opened, he asked Tina to send the lady in.
The lady who appeared in his office was stunning. She, literally, took his breath away. His state of mind at the time of their last meeting had blunted any appreciation of her looks.
In a tight black skirt, white blouse, and maroon waistcoat style jacket she was captivating. The loose jacket could not disguise the generous figure beneath. But it was the face he might have passed without recognition. The roundness had gone. Now there was a gauntness about the cheeks. A couple of little lines at the corners of the eyes indicated that something stressful had overtaken her since their last meeting. But the smile on her full lips was as genuine as ever.
"This is a surprise," he said, controlling his emotions, indicating a seat.
"I thought it might be," she replied, hitching at her skirt as she sat opposite him.
She asked how he was, and his reply was less enthusiastic than it might have been. As if detecting this she observed, "We don't seem to meet in the best of circumstances."
"And you? What happened to television?"
For the briefest moment, her blue eyes clouded, "Can we just call it redundancy?"
"They can't have found anyone better?" he said with applied charm.
She shuffled before replying, "Well, let's say they thought so."
Yorke pressed just a little further. Her reluctance intrigued him, "Given your ability though---the Enquirer?"
She shrugged, "Jobs aren't all that easy to walk into." She was reluctant to talk about whatever had happened, and she changed the subject herself. "Anyway, it's a challenge. And that's why I'm here really."
"What's on your mind?" Yorke asked, hoping it wasn’t a return to the despair of three years ago.
Her eyes regarded him frankly, and her left hand stroked at the dark hair behind her ear, before she said, "Your school is in a testing situation at the moment. What with the closure rumours, and all.”
Such expressive blue eyes, added to her basic attractiveness. God, how long since he’d thought of a woman like that? He had almost forgotten how pleasant such observations could be, but this was hardly the situation for such thinking.
"Oh, yes, definitely testing," he forced his mind back on track.
"It must be a nightmare for you. All the rumours. I was wondering—" And here her eyes lowered briefly, "I'm surprised to find you so composed. I was expecting more grey hair—or even less hair."
They laughed together, while an inner hand preened Yorke's ego, "Well, thanks for that much," he said. "By the same token, I may not have recognised you."
"Maybe I don't handle stress that well," she sighed, and before he could initiate a follow-up, she went on. "What I was after, Mr Millen, is your permission to write some in-depth articles about the school."
"A few good human-interest pieces. Parents, children affected. Concerns of the staff.
Yorke wasn't too sure, and shook his head, "I don't know---what you must understand is that the school must maintain a certain image. I can't see—"
"All very newsworthy," she broke in, holding up a hand of apology, before stroking the hair behind her left ear again. "This could help that image. After all, it's only rumours"
Yorke sighed and held up the letter that had remained in his hand, "More than just rumours now."
"May I?" she asked, holding out a hand.
Yorke shrugged. What harm would it do now? He handed her the letter. Watching her face for reaction as she read, he realised that he was watching, not only to see her reaction, but because it was a good face to look at.
Karen Marking's brow creased as she read, occasionally, certain key phrases aloud, " –-closure is being considered----pupil numbers---" The wide eyes looked up at him, "What are your pupil numbers?"
"At present two hundred and fifty-five and were rising, but if parents take fright—" Again, he shrugged.
She nodded, handed the letter back, "They now admit considering closure, but the earlier rumours must have stemmed from somewhere."
Yorke's eyes widened. That's what he had been thinking. There was more to this young lady than just a pretty face.
"Don't you think sympathetic articles in the local press might help?" Her voice was hopeful.
Yorke was so aware of those eyes on his face, "You think so?"
She licked her lips, and somehow a charming gesture. "I have to admit that my first impulses were, career-wise, selfish considerations. I'm single, pushing thirty-five. "
"You don't look it," he said gallantly, but also truthfully.
Was that a slight colouring of the cheeks before she went on? "Rather old to be a cub reporter. I need a good project." She stopped and smiled, "Now I'm making it sound as though I'm begging."
"Not at all. I quite understand how you would need that kind of lever."
"Thank you. I was going to add that you'd see anything I wrote before publication. Does that sound reasonable?"
It sounded most reasonable, and there could be some benefits for the school. It would be a reason to see more of this Karen Marking. God, stop this stupidity, he scolded himself. But he told her, "You might provide the input the school needs," he said. "Would you like to make a start next week?"
"Ideal," she said, "Thank you. You won't be disappointed. Can we shake on it?" And she stood up and held out a slender hand, which Yorke took, enjoying the delicate warmth emanating from it.
"I won't take any more of your time," she said, and added, "I have some contacts. I can probe into Council matters without raising too many suspicions."
The smile that accompanied that statement was bright and lit up her face. Already, Yorke was looking forward to seeing her again.
He told the staff about the letter, and there were some mumbles of concern. Then he mentioned Karen Marking wanting to talk to them and the general consensus was, '‘Anything that helps the school.'
Lying in bed that night, Yorke found his mind straying briefly to Karen Marking's unexpected appearance, and the long-lost effect it had on him. There was a warmth in her that had not been applied but appeared quite natural.
But now because of the past and her connection to that dreadful time he found himself recalling his life with Carol. So often he ducked away from such thoughts because they were still painful. On this night they poured in, and he replayed some of their wonderful times, happy or intimate. He had loved her so much.
His eyes moistening, as he rolled over in bed, and wondered whether he could hope that Karen Marking might be the one who would free him from this lingering grief.
Within days Karen Marking started on her interviews and was pleased to find the staff welcoming and cooperative. She had already produced one general article on the school situation, and had been lifted by Yorke Millen's appreciation of, as he put it, "an article that was skillful and uplifting.".
Seeing him on her first visit had reminded her of what a good-looking man he was, and that he really looked even better.
Surprising how often she unexpectedly met him as she moved around the school. Was that accidental? Less surprising was how good she felt when it happened. She had arranged an interview time with him on the Wednesday, and she had dressed coolly in a white blouse and blue cotton skirt. His look had been appreciative, and she warned herself not to read too much into it.
At that meeting, they came to an early agreement, for as she sat down across from him, he had said, "May I start by saying Ms Marking, how pleased I am with the way you've managed this. " It sounded terribly pompous and formal.
"Could you call me Karen? Everyone else does. And thank you, I'm enjoying the task"
"Then you must call me Yorke," he responded, and any formality disappeared.
"An unusual name."
"My parents nod at the place of my conception. In view of the Minster."
Delighted at this relaxation, Karen had laughed easily. Then listened keenly as he told her how her own paper had published two separate articles on the subject of bullying in the school. Neither of them true.
"Of course, you did protest?"
"Yes, someone unknown had informed the guy and he had done no checking. To be fair the guy was sacked for accepting uninformed sources. But the damage was done. The school undermined."
Karen pursed her lips, "And the irony is, I probably got his job." Then her face hardened, "But retractions attract less attention than juicy stories. No wonder you were cagey about me."
She wallowed in Yorke's reassuring smile, "But what you are doing is more than welcome. I'm not cagey about you anymore" And she found herself almost wishing that he would add, 'Quite the opposite." Come on, Karen, get real. Could she be imagining the promise behind those brown eyes?
"What you probably don't know is that we acquired a new editor in April. That's probably why there's been no reaction to me doing this story."
She held up a set of papers clipped together. "I've brought this draft for you to read. It's the article giving the staff reactions."
"No problem. Is there anything else?"
"Well yes, I've been to talk to a Mr Raymond, in the finance department at the council." Karen was proud of having pushed this far.
"Oh, yes, why him?"
She shrugged, "I knew him from other assignments."
" Nothing but the cash-strapped business for Councils. But then he mentioned that Midsdale school, closed just last year."
"And they're building a factory right on that spot already."
"Is that right?"
"Yes, so the income from the land could have been considerable. Imagine how the Council could score if this school were to close."
Yorke turned in his chair. "See out there," he said, pointing to the view out of the window.
Karen saw the open school playing fields and then a wide stretch of cultivated fields up to the nearby Stanning village. "It is a lot of land."
"A gentleman named Scaley owns it. Applied for planning permission to build houses and was turned down twice. Insufficient road access is given as the reason."
"Not new ground, but worth following up on, Karen."
Karen had a satisfied glow inside her as she was able to tell him, "Great, I'm glad you think so too. I have an appointment with somebody in the land office for Friday morning."
She was sure his look at her was one of admiration. She had hoped he'd be impressed with this show of enthusiasm. "You really are true to your word, aren't you?" he said.
She smiled briefly before admitting soberly, "I enjoy doing it."
Later that afternoon before she left she decided to call in to see if he'd read her latest article. Entering the office, she searched his face with hopeful eyes.
Her heart leapt at his reaction, "Another superb article, Karen. I'm so pleased you are doing this." If that gave her a lift what came next really thrilled her. "Look, I'm keen to know what you find out on Friday."
Karen gave a waft of her hand and a rueful smile, "It will have to be next week sometime. I've got a hectic few days coming up." Her blue eyes gave him an apologetic glance as she quipped, "Busy. Busy. So next Wednesday would be the earliest."
Yorke thought about that for a moment, "I can wait a week. How about a pub meal next Wednesday? Early evening?"
It felt like a flare had gone off inside her. Did she actually blush? She wasn't sure, but she was thrilled by the prospect. He could have met her here in school. Would her smiled acceptance be too obvious? It was as if he had awarded her Journalist of the Year.
"The Blue Dragon convenient? Say six-thirty? Just to talk it through."
She could accept that last 'talk it through'. "I know it well," she told him and left the building on a real high. Beware of over-reaction, madam.
For his part, Yorke had been looking at her as she sat there and noted that his earlier observation about her 'gauntness' had been unfair. Now his impressions were of an attractive, high cheek-boned face, open and alert. With a pang, it struck him that it was not unlike Carol's facial structure. Not the same delicate skin, but smooth and slightly freckled, and lit by the lightest blue eyes he had ever seen.
He would look forward to the following Wednesday to see if she produced any more information. And only that? Admit it, Millen, you want this connection to develop, don't you? This lady has touched you in a way that no woman has since-- since--then. He hastily got on with some paperwork.
On the evening of the following Wednesday, Karen Marking, locked her car. Her folder tucked under her arm, she was just a little excited and looking forward to the evening on two fronts. First, she was hoping that Yorke would be pleased with the information she had. But she was looking forward to being with him in this less formal situation.
She had spruced up with a little more thoroughness this evening. A long warm shower, a bit more fussing with her hair, and careful, yet minimal, make-up. All topped with a favourite lemon blouse, dark green cotton skirt, overlaid with a pale green cotton short-sleeved jacket.
The only annoyance was that she had been given a function to cover at eight-thirty that evening. Some literary presentation in Tynemouth. She had cursed that it would cut into what might have turned out to be a more than interesting evening.
She had been to the Blue Dragon with a couple of girlfriends recently and liked it. She chose a table in the corner of the large room, recalling lessons learned about being too attracted to any man. Thank you, Mr Patrick Webber, lesson learned. She brushed that thought from her mind, reminding herself that this meeting was not a date, just a review of an agreed situation. So why was she wishing it were a date?
Yet, as soon as Yorke Millen entered, smart in a navy blazer and blue open-necked shirt, she felt that familiar shakiness in the pit of her stomach. Time with him recently, had added other suppressed quivers inside her.
A wide, genuine smile of greeting, and he apologised for being late, as he sat down across the table from her.
"You said six-thirty, it isn't that yet. I was early," she reminded him. They talked briefly about the weather, as he slipped out of his jacket and draped it over the back of his chair, an action which she enjoyed watching. .
"Should we order straight away?" he asked.
"I'm as hungry as a bear," she admitted. "And it will take time."
"Right, let's choose. What's good?" Yorke asked, picking up the menu.
"I was here not long ago. The steak and kidney pie in ale, I can recommend."
"I'll settle for that, then."
"Make it two." Delighted that he had accepted her opinion so readily.
Getting to his feet, he declared, " Two it is, and I'm buying."
"Oh, I can't let ---"
He held up a hand, "No argument. This was my idea."
Just a little embarrassed at accepting so readily, she looked up at him gratefully. Once again enjoying what she saw. God, his eyes were so deep, yet so wide and honest. Stick to the business in hand, Karen.
"Care for a glass of wine with it?"
"That would be ideal. I'm driving, but one medium white, please."
What she had to tell would be useful to him, she hoped. She so wanted to please him further, remembering the pleasure his reaction to her article had given her. Just maintain his respect, be happy with that, she told herself, as she shrugged out of the green jacket.
He arrived back at the table, set down two glasses of wine, sat down, and remarked, "You suit lemon---or should it be lemon suits you." Having his eyes notice her like that was so warming.
"Thank you," she said, and treated him to a special smile. Well, she hoped he would tell it was special. To cover her uncertainty she asked, "You'll be on holiday soon, won't you?"
He nodded, "Just a few busy days away," And he laughed, "God, I wished you hadn't reminded me."
"You don't look forward to holidays?"
He shrugged, "Just so much to do between now and then."
Time to start the action, she thought, as she reached down to her feet and came up holding the clear plastic folder containing papers. "I hope this interests you. Since that's why you're here." She was daring enough to allow her eyes to fix on his briefly, with the unspoken question, "Isn't it?"
"Based on your visit last week?" he asked, and he was leaning forward clearly keen to see what she had found.
"That and a couple of other enquiries." She reached into the folder and came out with a single sheet of paper. Now to find out whether she could surprise and please him. "Benjamin Scaley, builder. You mentioned him."
"Yes, refused twice. Wanted to build a hundred houses."
Karen enjoyed the look of disappointment on his face She trusted she could remove that look ."Do you know the rest?"
She saw his interest perk up, just as a little red-faced waitress arrived with two steaming plates. The savoury aroma alone set her stomach rumbling, but she was just a little annoyed that a special moment had been disrupted. They were silent for a moment as they picked up their cutlery and began to taste the meal.
"Good choice, Karen," Yorke said appreciatively.
"I knew it would be," she replied, delighted that he agreed with her, but wondering how they could get back on track while eating. But he was obviously as hooked as she hoped he would be, for, resting his cutlery, he looked up at her.
"What was the rest you mentioned?"
She attempted an enigmatic smile as she said, "Scaley sold the land."
Clear surprise showed on his face. "When?"
"Roughly one year ago. Two million."
How encouraging was it to see him forget about the food, and ask, "Who would pay for land that had no planning chance?"
Oh, how she enjoyed the look on that handsome face, "A group called Hangford Properties."
She watched him as, a puzzled look on his face, he ate in silence for a moment, clearly deep in thought. Emptying his mouth and taking a sip of wine, he asked, "Why would they want it?"
Would he make the connection? She wondered. "Doesn't seem sensible, does it? I checked up on them. Got caught up in the 1989 nose-dive—but survived."
Yorke was clearly intrigued, "But still came up with two million for land which---" He paused, and the obvious question now sprang to his lips. "When did you say this happened?"
Ah, here it was, the connection she'd hoped he'd make. She told him the date and watched him eagerly.
"Just before we became aware that the school was at risk," he murmured “God, this is so close."
"So, is that a connection---or what?" And she put on what she hoped was her best journalistic mask. “And there is one other element.”
“What is that?”
“Remember, we talked the other day about the factory being built on the Midsdale school site?”
He nodded his head, as she went on, “Guess the firm that’s behind that.”
She loved seeing his slightly puzzled face suddenly find realisation, “Not Hangford Properties?”
“The very same,” she said, trying to keep the note of triumph from her voice.
.But she could see that Yorke remained a little guarded, unwilling to accept a total truth, "Taking a risk though. After all, closure was only a suggestion." She warmed to his brown eyes regarding her, as he went on, "But you, madam, have been a true snooper. What inside information would prompt buying land already refused planning permission?"
Yorke finished his meal well ahead of her, and as she ate she knew his were eyes on her. She kept her head down, well aware that she was not a lady-like eater. Her father had once said. "You eat with all the voraciousness of a starved bulldog." She couldn't possibly know what Yorke was thinking, but had to admit that, on this one, he would have to take her as she was. She believed she had no false modesties or pretensions.
As soon as both plates were clear, she stacked them and took them to the bar. When she came back, Yorke observed, "With the school gone there would be much greater ease of access,"
"And then some. A real Catch 22 situation. If they built houses on the land the school would grow. But they can only build if the school closes. Crazy?"
And again, he showed they were on the same wavelength, "Whoever purchased the land must have had some insight."
"So, they could make a pretty sure bet on the school closing." She was really enjoying their shared enthusiasm.
"You have done wonderfully well. I'll follow up on it, I've spoken to so many Council officials, Leader, deputy leader, you name it, I've talked to them all. Now, I’ll have a go at Hangford Properties."
Grateful at his appreciative words, she glanced at her watch, "I'm afraid I have to go." She so wanted him to go on. "That damned function."
"Right. I'll let you know what I find. How soon can we meet again?"
"Well, I'm down in Yorkshire tomorrow, and that could expand to Friday," she said quietly, but wondering would her offer appeal to him. Perhaps. She looked at him with a look, which, she hoped was brightly challenging. "Are you a risk taker?"
"Now what does that mean?"
"Would you be against allowing me to prepare a meal for you? From my own kitchen," she said with mock grandeur. "Saturday, say? I know I'll be free then."
"Oh, I don't want to be any trouble."
Trouble? This was not going to be trouble. She didn't see herself as the best cook in the world, but she could turn up a presentable meal. Eating alone could become a bad habit, and here was a man that, for once, she was sure she wanted to share more than just a meal with. "Hey, there are times when I'm glad of any company at the moment."
"Oh, thanks a lot," he laughed with a mock pout.
"I didn't mean it like that," she giggled, touching his arm lightly. How daring was that?
"I know. But what's the risk?"
"My cooking," she said, with a grin.
"I'd be happy to come. There's just one thing stopping me."
"I don't know where you live."
It was a delight to share another laugh. Karen was sure in that moment they were drawn closer together. Outside, they stood by her car in the warm evening air. He was standing close, and Karen was sure she could feel the heat from him. Probably her imagination, but then unexpectedly, he had bent and kissed her gently on the cheek. Before she could respond, he had stepped back saying, "I'm really very grateful for your help."
As she drove away, Karen could still feel the tingle on her cheek. Damn, this bloody function. Roll on Saturday.
By the time Saturday came around, Yorke could hardly wait to tell Karen what he had learned in the intervening days. He had first gone on the internet to look up Hangford Properties. From that point, his excitement had been almost uncontainable. That morning he'd had a long talk with the Director of Education, and now had to wait patiently for the outcome. Karen was the only one he could tell at this stage.
He couldn't wait to watch the enthusiasm on that so stunning face. He had an encouraging feeling that this dinner invitation was more than just dinner or school problems, but maybe he was misreading the situation.
By the time he drew up outside Karen's neat, detached house at precisely eight o'clock, rain was pounding on the car roof and leaping in arrowheads off the roads and pavement. Mr Ever-ready. No umbrella, no coat. Not even bothering to lock the car, he slammed the door behind him, and dashed for the cover of the shallow awning at her front door, the plastic bag, in which he had carried the wine, held in useless cover over his head.
She opened the door before he reached it, and her mouth set in a little 'oh' somewhere between regret and humour. "You really caught it."
"Too stupid," Yorke laughed as he stepped inside, shaking himself like a Great Dane. "I knew it was coming---"
He kicked off his shoes, which had splashed through several small lakes, handed over the wine, and slipped out of his jacket, before loosening his tie.
"Hang it there," she said, indicating the coat rack. "Are you all right otherwise?"
A few spots on his trousers he reckoned would soon dry.
He followed her into a good-sized sitting room, elegantly furnished in modern styles. A small suite consisting of armchair and two-seater sofa in tan leather. A couple of tasteful water-colours on the walls. and a table neatly set in one corner. Two places facing each other, and candles already lit.
Karen wore a simple pale blue summer dress, above knee length, with a scooped neckline. It gave her a coolly competent look. Yorke resisted but admitted that it also loaned a quite delectable quality to her.
As his eyes took in the room she asked, "Like to eat right away?"
"Any time you like."
Within minutes they were sitting at the table, and she was dishing out chicken breasts in a smooth red sauce, with broccoli, baby potatoes and French beans.
He sensed her eyes watching anxiously as he took his first bite at the chicken. The sauce had a most delicate piquancy that teased his palette. He told her, and she looked relieved and grateful, as she poured the wine.
Over the meal they talked about anything but his reason for being there. The change in the weather, the news about refugees. He allowed himself two half glasses of wine.
When it came to clearing up, he noticed that a good two-thirds of the bottle had gone. Karen obviously enjoyed it. Her cheeks had taken on a full rosy glow.
"Leave the dishes," she said, as he began collecting them. "We'll have a coffee. Or would you prefer something stronger?"
"Coffee would be fine."
As he settled into the easy chair he noticed a photograph on the windowsill. A young, handsome, fair-haired man smiled broadly at the camera, high green hills behind him. Karen placed a tray on the small table between them, and, as she sat on the sofa facing him, her eyes studied him openly.
"You're not going to keep me waiting much longer are you?" she said with a cautious smile.
Yorke nodded, noticing the high colour in her cheeks. Was his increased observation just because of the wine? He knew damned well it wasn't. But, picking up his coffee cup, he said, "Thanks to you, Karen, I was able to follow up on Hangford Properties on the internet. Found their website, on which the directors were listed Littleson and Clarke, seem to be the top two.”
Yorke paused, holding back the main revelation, “Nothing outstanding among the directors. Then I came across a page of what are called 'Associates’ and scanning down that list I found one name that did jump out at me."
He stopped, took a sip of his coffee, and enjoyed the way Karen hung on his every word. In repose, her mouth turned down slightly at the corners. Sadly sensual, he would have defined it. But when she was animated it became highly expressive, and quite fascinating. God, she was good to look at.
"Go on. Go on," she urged impatiently.
He gave her a smile and went on, "That name was Norman Jackingham."
"Isn't it though? But it happens to be a surname I recognised. This morning I had a long talk with Harold Murton, the director of education. Before I revealed anything, I asked if talk of school closure came from any particular direction. Without hesitation, he said it had been his deputy, along with a couple of other committee members who had pushed it. Just as I hoped."
Yorke hoped his smile wasn't too triumphant. "The name of the deputy director is---Raymond Jackingham. Further checking and---they're brothers, Karen. That's all really. Murton has assured me he'll look into the matter most carefully and get back to me."
"So, it's wait and see? Oh, so close." She glanced at his empty coffee cup, "Another?" she asked, and when he thanked her and demurred, she added, "A whiskey?"
"Well, if you are having something---but small. Half and half with water. I'm driving." But Karen was away immediately, and he watched, thinking that her legs were just a little unsteady?
She came back with two tumblers, handed Yorke the whiskey and sat down again nursing a tumbler of clear fluid.
"A gin lady?"
"Vodka," she replied, and for the next fifteen minutes or so they talked through the various outcomes of what they had found.
She stood up with her tumbler empty, "A top up?" she asked.
"Not for me, Karen, thanks." And as she staggered slightly past the coffee table he added, "You know as much as anyone now, Karen. A little patience, and you may score a big story out of it."
When she returned and sat down with her recharged tumbler, her eyes seemed moister, less focused, a more shaded blue somehow.
Yorke wondered about the sense in suggesting that she had maybe had enough drink. But as she placed her glass on the table she said, "I've never explained why I'm out of television."
He shook his head, interested, but wondering where this fit into the way the conversation had moved.
Her head lowered, "Yorke, I'm thirty-four years old. I'm no easy catch, but I've been around. I was married when I was twenty-three. Just after I got my first job in television. I was assistant producer. He was a cameraman. Ian Marking." Her eyes moved beyond me towards the window, and Yorke guessed who was in that photograph. "I adored him." Her eyes came back, wide to hold his, "He was killed in a car crash on the Alnwick by-pass. We'd been married just two and a half years."
"I'm sorry," he said and meant it. It explained the empathy she had shown towards him during the time after Carol.
"So, I knew what you were going through, you see," she said, as though thinking in parallel with him. "Nothing could be harder to bear. I buried myself in my work. Flogged myself to the top---directing, producing. I was well in. But so empty inside."
"Then eighteen months ago I got involved with Patrick Webber, one of the company directors of Northern Television. After a programme celebrating party--- I was high as a kite. So was he. To say he seduced me would be unfair. Given our condition it was mutual. In the back of his Merc. Exotic stuff, you see." And her attempt at a smile was only partly successful as her lips trembled.
A tell-tale moistness flickered in the corners of her eyes. "You know, Yorke, I've told this to no one before. You don't mind listening?"
He shook his head, but not certain inside.
"To cut it all short, it was the briefest of affairs." Her giggle held little real humour. “As he was leaving, Curtis Royston, the manging director of Northern, spotted Patrick’s car, and came to pass on a message to him.”
She paused, flicking at the corner of her eye, while Yorke thought for just a moment that her face was about to crumble, lips puckered, eyes squeezed closed and then came wide again. "You see, --- Patrick was married---only he was married to Curtis Royston's daughter. Oh, I'd known that---no excuses. Big scene. Much accusation. They cooked something up. Patrick was found a post down in Yorkshire—and I was asked to submit my notice."
"You could have fought that, surely?"
"Unfair dismissal---well, I might have---you know, it was me who was riddled with guilt---isn't that crazy? TV always kept me close to Ian, I felt---but it was gone. I'm sure Royston warned other companies because nobody was interested. So, here I am, trying to get myself back into gear—and failing."
Her head bowed, and her shoulders heaved, for a moment. Yorke thought she was weeping. But she raised her head, the blue eyes remained moist, her hand pressed to her cheek. Then slowly she stood up, "I need a tissue. Silly of me, after all this time."
Without thinking about it, Yorke stood, stepped towards her, and put, what he hoped was a comforting arm, around her shoulder. He was aware of her moving closer, as though submitting to the comfort of his arm. Her forehead lowered to his shoulder.
Her perfume was a delicate coaxing in his nostrils, as though gentle fingers were probing his senses. Her arms rested lightly around him. For maybe a minute they stood like that, not moving. At last, she drew back her head. "I'm sorry," she said, her voice lowered to a near whisper. "I didn't realise how difficult the telling would be."
"Well, if it has helped at all it will be no bad thing. You had a bad deal."
She sighed, "Another hard lesson learned."
"Such lessons are difficult to value," he agreed. Her face turned up to his, the full lips slightly parted, a questioning in the eyes, and her arms tightened imperceptibly around him. Such a lovely looking lady.
"Is there such a thing as mutual solace?" she asked, her breath warm on his cheek, sweet in his nostrils.
"I'm sure there is," he replied gently, fighting the battle between the physical and the cerebral. Then her lips were on his, sweet, soft but demanding. Yorke was too aware of her hips squirming against his own. An unwanted voice was screaming warnings in his head.
With superhuman strength he broke the kiss. "Karen, Karen," he gasped. "Please don't take this the wrong way, but I think maybe you have downed too much wine. Tomorrow you could regret this. You know too well that mistakes can be hurtful."
Her hold relaxed, and it hurt him to see a shadow of disappointment cross her face. "Repent at leisure, you mean? Of course, you're right. And please forgive me---you see, I can be so selfish."
His hands returned to her shoulders, and he looked into her face, "If this is going to happen between us, I think it should be natural, and not drink induced."
He noticed the deep breath she took before the lovely eyes looked back at him and admitted, "You're right." She moved away from him to glance in a mirror over the fireplace, "Oh, I see it all now," she laughed easily. "That is hardly an attractive prospect."
There had been a slight slick of eyeshadow and her lipstick had smudged. "It's a very attractive prospect," he said soothingly, yet honestly. "One not to be taken lightly."
"But one not to be taken." She looked at him regretfully before saying, "Would you excuse me a second?"
Yorke nodded and sat down on the sofa again, trying desperately to cool down, and accept that he had done the right thing. He was just a little angry with himself at just how easy it could have been.
But, there was no doubt now, he desired Karen Marking. A lady he would enjoy being with. How ironic was that, having just rebuffed her?
When she returned, she had regained all her composure. Her face glowed, and the gentle downward curve at the corners of her mouth was adorable.. It was a feature that immediately changed with the wide smile she gave him as she sat down opposite.
"Thank you, you were right. I succumbed once before because of drink. Now, tell me how I can help."
It was good to see her switch into that high-efficiency mode. As though she was shutting out their brief diversion.
It was five minutes past eleven when they said their farewells at her front door. The rain had stopped, but trees and bushes seemed decked in amber, as droplets caught the yellow lamplight. Yorke reached out and gripped her hand in a tight, yet brief squeeze of gratitude as he thanked her for the meal and her involvement.
The same yellow that decked the trees caused her eyes to take on a feral glow as she looked up at him. He could not define the expression on her face, if it were disappointment then he was both glad and sorry. But he risked bending to bestow another gentle kiss.
As their lips touched, there was a loud unearthly screeching somewhere behind him. Mutually startled, they each turned their heads, and laughed with some relief as two cats appeared on the shadowed lawn, face to face, backs arched. By instinct, Yorke made a cat scaring squawk that his father had taught him so many years ago. The pair disappeared.
Karen's eyes turned to him again as she said, "There are two things for which animals are to be envied: they know nothing of future evils, or of what people say about them. "
"That's very profound."
"Voltaire—remembered from university."
"Oh, maybe we could discuss that sometime," Smiling, Yorke placed his hands on the curve of her shoulders, "Can I make you a promise?"
"Anytime," she said, with a fervour that pleased him.
"If Murton comes up with the news we want to hear, I will take you out for a super deluxe meal."
She gave him a sensuous up-and-under look, as she firmly stated,” And I'll only have one glass of wine."
"Sounds good. Let's hope it's soon"
It took five frustrating days. Yorke threw himself into all the tasks that were part of the end of the school year. Losing himself in the work did not shake the image of Karen from his mind.
He had spent some time wondering what would have been the outcome if he had taken advantage of that momentary clinch on Saturday night. Her judgement may have been suspect because of drink or were her sentiments genuine. No doubt in his mind now, that since that moment he first saw her enter his office, he had wanted her. Why had it taken him so long to admit that to himself?
Karen had phoned once to ask if there was any news, and he promised her that she would be one of the first to know. Luckily, on that Thursday, she was in school, and just looking at her, efficient in her almost standard white blouse, he knew, knew without a doubt, that she was for him.
By some magic of coincidence, she had just come into his office to give her farewells when the phone rang.
Holding his breath, Yorke heard, "Murton here. You all right, Yorke?"
Yorke's heart was pounding, as he mouthed 'Murton' to Karen, and she, eyes wide, moved closer, and during the whole duration of the following conversation, their eyes remained locked.
"Good. I must tell you that the Council have checked all aspects of what you told me. And—your school is no longer on the closure list."
His head nodding, a wide smile on his face, Yorke was able to convey that news to Karen without speaking. Karen, her eyes moist, reached out and gripped his free hand.
"Suspended, but I don't think he'll be returning. You can have a happy break now."
There were a few other comments, but as soon as Yorke put down the phone, Karen was in his arms, pressed against him, kissing him wildly. And now, as though freed from prison he could respond fully. When they finally broke, Yorke said, "You started this. Now there's much to do. And you have an exclusive."
"Hell, yes," she said, "I must get this in right away. It'll make tomorrow's edition, I hope." She hurried to the door.
"And I have to get newsletters out for parents, and of course tell the staff." Just before she went out he called, "Would you be free Saturday night for that deluxe meal?"
"Oh, I'm not sure," she laughed, paused, and added, "I'm positive."
"I'll pick you up at seven-thirty."
So it was that Saturday night, showered, and powdered, scented, and gently made up, Karen had put on her snugly fitting blue satin dress that revealed her shoulders, and just a subtle amount of cleavage. She so hoped her appearance would please him, so determined that this would be a night to remember. She could hardly wait.
Eagerly she watched for Yorke's Honda Civic to appear outside her house.
Yorke had booked a table at Club 25 on the Quayside, making it an incredibly special evening. She knew this was a high-class establishment, and as they settled at their table under low crystal chandeliers. Karen had to admit to him that she was extremely impressed, and just a little stunned by his generosity.
Delightedly, he was equally frank, "It was meant to impress you, but mainly it's because you deserve this kind of appreciation"
Despite the elegance of the place, her eyes kept coming back to Yorke, elegant in his grey suit, with a dark blue shirt and light blue tie, so cool.
"I bought it specially for this night," he told her. "You look stunning. If the food's as good as your appearance---"
She could have basked in his comments all night.
Then the starter came, and she had never had quail before. She wondered if she'd ever had it so deliciously done. The beef bourguignon they shared was just perfection. As they ate they talked lightly around a range of subjects. She really tried to be more lady-like in eating the delicious fare placed before her. And she knew, from the kindly smile on Yorke's face, that her struggle was futile. And they only had one glass of wine each.
The smile on Yorke's face was from the sheer pleasure of being there with Karen. The prospect of having her in his arms was almost overwhelming.
Once the meal was over, the waiter was surprised that they turned down the offer of coffee. Their smiles at each other at that moment, sent an invisible message flashing between the pair of them. Just sitting opposite her, looking into those blue eyes, had Yorke almost fearful that he might do something that would spoil this evening.
Much, much, much later, she half sat up and her eyes were looking at him frankly, from a face still showing the glow of their lovemaking, as he told her, “You must be proud at the work you’ve done. And of the way you have reawakened my life.”
“I'll only be proud if I've reawakened your life to being my own private property."
Yorke gazed into those honest, pale blue eyes, as he assimilated the implications of what she had just said. "You really mean that?"
Karen told him of the love that was blazing in her heart, and she kissed him tenderly. As she broke away, Yorke whispered, "Then I guess I’m trapped."
Their lips came together once more, and it was good.