Wife by Agreement

By: Kim Lawrence


hannah slid the key very carefully into the lock. Inside the only sound was the ticking of the clock. Nobody was up, thank goodness. She leant back against the door and gave a slow sigh of relief—at last!

She didn't bother switching on the light, but slipped thankfully out of the remains of her patent leather court shoes. Tucking them under her arm, she felt her way carefully past the big scrubbed table that had centre stage in the room. She thought with longing of a hot, cleansing shower. The sudden illumination made her freeze and blink like a startled animal.

'Is all this subterfuge really necessary? There isn't a curfew.' Ethan had moved to sit at the table, a half-empty glass of brandy in front of him. The vaguely bored irony faded dramatically from his voice as he took in her bedraggled state. 'What the hell has happened?'

The last thing Hannah felt like was reliving the past hour, and the last person she wanted to explain to was Ethan. Her hand went self-consciously to the torn material of her shirt lapel, but her attempts to hold the fabric together only drew his attention to the pale skin the rent exposed. What was he doing sitting in the dark anyway? She grimaced as she risked a swift glance down.

The unkind electric lights revealed it was even worse than she had thought. Her legs were covered with mud and her fine denier tights were in shreds; her velvet skirt was torn in several places and the pale skin of her shoulders and midriff showed through the gaping tears in her silk shirt.

'It looks a lot worse than it is,' she said soothingly. It didn't feel it, though. The scratches on her cheek were beginning to sting as the warmth of the room thawed her cold body. There was a promise of winter in the autumn air tonight.

With an impatient gesture Ethan dismissed her weak attempt to pacify him. 'Have you been in a car crash?'

'Not exactly.' You couldn't call jumping out of a car moving at thirty miles an hour a crash, exactly. She had a pretty good idea what Ethan would call it—insanity, probably. He hadn't been there, though. It had been— A deep shudder rippled through her body and she swayed as the whole room pitched.

Ethan reached out and touched her arm. 'My God, you're like ice.' He took off his robe and wrapped it around her. 'Sit down before you fall down.' He pressed her into a chair.

The nausea passed and Hannah opened her eyes. 'You'll get cold,' she protested. Under the robe Ethan was wearing a pair of dark blue pajama trousers and nothing else. They'd taken the children to the South of France in June, and she noticed irrelevantly that his olive-toned skin was still tanned a deep golden brown.

'Drink this.' She tried to turn her head away as her nostrils flared against the scent of raw alcohol. 'Do as I say.'

It was only under duress that she obeyed; brandy wasn't a taste she'd ever acquired.

'Now tell me exactly what happened.'

'I want a shower,' she fretted. A hand on her shoulders prevented her from rising.

'After I've had my explanation. I was under the impression that you were going out for a meal with your fellow night-class members.' His sceptical tone made it sound as though this was an elaborate lie.

Why would she need to lie to him? Did he think she led a double life or something? 'I was...I did.' She raised her eyes to his face and read implacability there. Best just get it over with. 'Debbie and Alan took me.' Ethan had met the young couple who were learning French with her and he nodded briefly. 'Craig Finch, he only joined the class last month, offered to bring me home. He said it wasn't out of his way and it would save Alan a detour.' She swallowed hard. 'Only Craig took a detour, and when I mentioned it he...he...'

'What did he do?' He spoke quietly, but Ethan Kemp's grey eyes had narrowed to slits and a nerve throbbed erratically in his lean cheek.

'He laughed.' She felt sick just thinking about the expression in Craig's eyes. She'd already been tense— some of the things he'd been saying had been particularly personal, and slimily coarse—but it had been that smile that had really set the alarm bells ringing.

'Laughed?' Ethan echoed incredulously. It wasn't what he'd expected to hear.

'You weren't there!' she shot back angrily. 'He'd been...saying things.' In a large group, Craig's behaviour had been unexceptionable, but once he'd got Hannah alone his entire attitude had changed. Everything he'd said had been laced with grubby innuendo. Her frigid silence hadn't put him off at all.

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