‘The other thing is, only—’ she pointed to sea where they’d swum ‘—a couple of hours ago we… we were…’ Once again tears started to roll down her cheeks.

‘You may never know how hard this is, Maggie,’ he said abruptly, ‘but one day you’ll be grateful. Can you imagine having to tell your mother why your father hates me the way he does?’

That stopped Maggie in her tracks. ‘Maybe she knew but decided to live with it?’ she whispered.

He shook his head. ‘From his reaction when I delivered my threat I could see that neither of you knew.’

Maggie made one last effort. ‘What if Sylvia hadn’t turned up or found out about me for, well, ages?’

He ran his hand through his hair and sighed. ‘No doubt I’d have come to my senses before that.’

‘Has this—has ‘‘us’’ meant anything to you at all, Jack?’

Her hands were lying helplessly on the table and he reached over to cover one of them with his own. ‘Yes, it has, but I’m not the right man for you.’

‘Why not? Apart from everything else.’

‘You can’t separate them, Maggie.’ He hesitated, then shrugged. ‘I just don’t think I’d take well to domesticity.’

‘A loner?’

He narrowed his eyes and looked past her. ‘That’s how I started out in this life. But—’ he withdrew his gaze from the past and concentrated on her again ‘—for the right man,’ he stressed, ‘you’re going to be a wonderful wife. A bit of a handful, prone to some excesses like locking people in sheds and—’

She pulled her hand away and stood up as his words acted like a catalyst. She wiped her face with her fingers, but although the tears subsided her heart felt as if it were breaking and all the fight drained out of her.

If he could even think of her with another man after what had passed between them, she had to believe that all he felt for her was a passing attraction.

Yes, maybe there was affection too, but not the conviction she held. The conviction that she’d fallen deeply in love with him. Not the pain at the prospect of being parted from him, nor the sheer agony of thinking of him with another woman…

No, she had to believe it hadn’t happened for him as it had happened for her and—talk about being torn between him and her family—that would really tear her apart, going on with him under those circumstances.

And she remembered her original proposition—she would take full responsibility for her actions and there would be no recriminations. But how to act on those brave words? something within her cried.

She drew a trembling breath. ‘What do they say? You live and learn.’ She smiled, but she couldn’t eradicate the bitterness from it. ‘I’ll go now,’ she added simply.

He stood up and watched her like a hawk for a moment. ‘Will you be all right?’

She cast him a look tinged with irony.

‘Look, I know—’

‘This will take a bit of getting over?’ she suggested. ‘Of course.’ And she squared her shoulders and tilted her chin at him with further, this time patent irony. ‘But I am a Trent, after all.’

‘Maggie,’ he said exasperatedly, ‘I meant will you be all right physically? I long since stopped classing you with your father.’

‘Perhaps you shouldn’t have, Jack. Physically? Oh, you mean…? Well, I should be fine on both those fronts. I am on the pill and I’ve been careful about what I ate after the other day. No, I’ll be fine.’

She stopped and stared at him. ‘Provided I do this very quickly,’ she said barely audibly and stood on her toes to kiss him briefly. ‘You were… you were everything a girl could pray for. Take care.’ She turned away and went inside. He moved, then stilled.

It took her all of five minutes to stuff her possessions into her bag and he carried it to her car.

She said goodbye unemotionally and he did the same. She even drove off with a wave. Two miles down the road she pulled up and was overcome by a storm of weeping and disbelief—how could it have ended like this?

To coin a phrase, she returned to the bosom of her family for a few days despite the new ambivalence of her feelings for her father, but some things had changed, she discovered.

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