Time of the Temptress 9
The car radio was playing as they drove along the London Road, and the soft warm wind was blowing Eve’s hair and bringing colour to her cheeks, Acker Bilk playing as only he could the plaintive It Had To Be You, lovely nostalgic words and a deep rich melody, softening her lips to poignancy.
“I bless the day for keeping fine,” Larry said. “We had a shower last night and I feared it was going to break up the weather.”
“Nature’s tears,” Eve murmured, “clearing the air. What a day! That breeze is like silk.”
“That’s what I like about a soft-top car,” Larry enthused. “I hate being closed in, don’t you?”
“It’s smothering,” she agreed. “Ah, Greensleeves! Don’t you love it?”
“I think I may love you,” he replied, shooting a glance at her. She wore a sleeveless dress the colour of palest dahlias, with an embroidered cluster of small dahlias on the left hip. Her scent was by Guerlain, and her legs looked elegant in sheer nylon, her feet clasped in slender strapped shoes. She had known that he wanted her to look her best and had complied to the last detail, but the smile she gave him was just a little anxious.
“Love is a big word, Larry, and we’ve all the time in the world to get around to it. Don’t let’s be serious. Let us enjoy what we have right now.”
“I’ll do anything you say,” he smiled, “but I just wanted you to know that no matter what you did, no [176-177] matter if you had to hurt me, I’d still feel a very special love for you. Even if I could never have you, you’d always haunt me–that’s how it is, sometimes.”
“Yes,” she murmured, “I feel that too.”
They arrived at Regent’s Gate just before one o’clock, and Larry’s mother must have been watching for the car from the front room window, for she was at the door and it was opened before Larry could even touch the bell.
They embraced silently and Eve saw the happy tears glisten in the deep blue Irish eyes . . . funny, but she had expected Larry to have his mother’s eyes and decided that he must take after his father.
“Ma, this is Eve.” Larry drew her forward, a slight flush in his cheeks and a lock of dark hair falling across his brow. He introduced her with such obvious pride that Eve wasn’t surprised when Mrs. Mitchell gave her that considering, rather reticent look of the fond mother who suddenly realises that her son has become a man and has developed an eager interest in a young woman.
“How do you do, Mrs. Mitchell.” Eve held out her hand and when Larry’s mother shook it, Eve noticed that she gave that hand a surprised look, as if she had expected the smooth pampered skin and nails of someone who was decorative but slightly useless.
Eve smiled. “Hasn’t Larry told you that I work at the same hospital as he does? I’m a nursing aide.”
“Larry told me you lived in a lovely big house in Essex,” Mrs. Mitchell explained, as they made their way across a small hallway to a pleasant lounge furnished in oak, with blue velvet curtains drawn back from the bay windows. “I expect our house must seem very small to you, Miss Tarrant.”
“It’s charming,” Eve said sincerely. “I see you have a [177-178] piano. Do you play, Mrs. Mitchell?”
“No, but my husband’s fond of a tune. Please sit down.” She gestured at the blue velvet sofa and Eve felt the quick up-and-down look that Larry’s mother gave her as she sat down and crossed her slim legs. Eve wondered if her dress and perfume were a little too sophisticated, but how could she explain that she hadn’t come to lunch as a prospective daughter-in-law but as a friend of Larry’s? Mrs. Mitchell was obviously thinking of her in terms of imminent relationship, and Eve just had to reassure her.
“It’s nice for Larry to come to Lakeside; he’s able to use our hard court and to keep fit for all that studying and hard work he has to do. You must be very proud of him, Mrs. Mitchell. There’s so much more to being a doctor these days, and it’s relaxing for him at my guardian’s house. He and Charles often play snooker together, has he told you? They get alone fine–in fact we’re all very good friends.”
Eve emphasised that word and held on to the deep blue gaze of this nice woman of modest means who was obviously afraid that her son was mixing with moneyed people who might turn his head. “You have nothing to worry about,” Eve longed to say to her. “Larry has a good firm head on his shoulders and he’ll thoroughly enjoy making his own way in life because he’s basically tough and tenacious.”
Eve glanced at him and wondered a little why she felt so sure about his character. What was it about him that made her so certain he had that inner core of strength that would always be his standby, so that he’d enjoy challenge and accept adversity? He looked so young with his dark ruffled hair, sitting there on the [178-179] piano stool, long-legged and relaxed.
“Where’s Dad” he asked. “He’s not had to go on duty, has he? I wanted Eve to meet him.”
“No.” Mrs. Mitchell broke into a smile that banished the anxiety from her face. “He’s gone out for a drink with–you’ll never guess, Larry!”
“The Minister of Transport,” Larry said, with a grin. “Pa would love to get him into a corner with a few of his ideas on how to improve our transport system.”
“Someone, my dear, who flew into London yesterday with sand on his shoes!”
“You’re kidding!” Larry exclaimed.
His mother shook her head and her eyes were sparkling. “It was a lovely surprise, opening the door to him and seeing him so fit and dark as an Arab. And he’s had such good news from the lawyer!”
Larry smiled and turned to look at Eve. “My mother’s talking about her cousin–the one I told you about who has a citrus farm on the edge of the desert. His arrival will really make it a party–I take it, Ma, he’s staying to lunch with us?”
“You couldn’t stop him,” she laughed. “He wouldn’t miss tucking into my roast beef and pudding. Oh, but it is good news for him, after all these months of uncertainty–the lawyer has now confirmed absolutely that he’s free of that woman he married. It seems that about ten years ago she went out to Las Vegas to work as a croupier, where she obtained an American divorce and remarried. About three years after that, when she must have been in her middle thirties, she had one of those operations to restore the figure and it seems that only a few hours afterwards she collapsed with an embolism and died. It was the change of name that stumped the [179-180] lawyer, but now everything is confirmed and that broth of a man decided he’d earned a spree in London.”
Mrs. Mitchell put her hands to her flushed cheeks. “You must forgive me for gabbing on like this, Miss Tarrant, but we’re all very fond of my cousin, and because he lost touch with his wife years ago he could never be certain–well, you know how it is. He’s a man in his prime and now he’s settled on this fruit farm he may want to chance a second marriage. The first was a total disaster–he married a woman who was incapable of loyalty, trust or love. He didn’t deserve that, not my cousin.”
“Doesn’t she go on about him!” Larry grinned. “That’s family loyalty for you.”
“It is indeed.” Eve smiled at Mrs. Mitchell. “Won’t you call me Eve? I’d very much like you to.”
Mrs. Mitchell’s slight look of constraint reappeared, as if once again she visualised Eve as a daughter-in-law who would gradually involve Larry in a life-style more sophisticated than the one he had always been accustomed to.
“Would you like a cup of tea–Eve? Or perhaps a coffee?” she asked.
“I’d very much enjoy a cup of tea,” Eve replied. “Coffee’s inclined to give me heartburn.”
“Not too often, I hope?” Larry gave her a concerned look, the future doctor overshadowing his look of youth.
“No,” she laughed, “but I will eat those canteen doughnuts with it, and then more often than not I have to dash round with the tea trolley and so, doctor dear, I get indigestion.”
“Whereabouts exactly?” He leaned forward with a serious air. “You show me where you get the pain.”
“It isn’t a pain, you idiot,” she said. “Like everyone [180-181] else these days I don’t relax enough, and when I feel peckish I fill up on the crispy things that I burn off again by dashing about in the wards. I’m perfectly fit, Larry.”
“But nervy,” he said. “Sort of strung up. You need a holiday.”
“Where would you suggest?” she smiled.
“Morocco?” murmured a voice near the door.
Eve sat very still and in the silence that followed she could feel her heart beginning to thud, and then Larry had leapt to his feet and was loping across the room. “Wade!” he exclaimed. “How great to see you, and Ma was right about the tan! What do you do, laze about in that desert sunshine all day long?”
“Some hopes of that! Let me look at you, Larry–you’re keeping spare, and you’ve a tan yourself.”
By then Eve had found the courage to turn and look . . . to find a ghost or a living man. The voice had done it, turned the key that unlocked all the memories, every single one of them, and slowly she stood up and her eyes clung to that lean, dark, inimitable face. Wade O’Mara . . . the cousin of Moira Mitchell, whom Larry called mother.
“Hullo,” Wade said softly. “And how are you, dear deb?”
“Don’t–” Her voice shook wildly. “Don’t call me that, Major.”
“What would you like me to call you?” He was walking towards her and there was no one else in the world, and the walls of this London house were falling around her and she could smell the jungle again and hear the birds and the rush of the river, cascading down from the brown-cliffs.
“Eve!” His hands had hold of hers and the lost dream [181-182] had become a living reality again; strong tough hands, brown as teak, clasping hers as if this time he’d never let them go again. “Lovely tempting Eve–did you guess, did you feel it, that I’d find you again, some time, somewhere? Did you long for me as much as I longed for you?”
His eyes, like steel all alive and glowing in his darkly tanned face, ran over her hair, her face, her figure in the sleeveless dress. “So this is how you look, my jungle waif, when you aren’t slogging through the bush in outsize sandals and a torn green shirt–yet I love that picture of you, and I’ve carried it in my heart for a long time–too long a time.”
“What is this?” Larry demanded. “Do you two know each other?”
“I think we do,” Wade smiled, his eyes still feasting on Eve’s face, which from sudden paleness had gone to a wild, joy-strung rose. “We met in the jungle, and you’d never think to look at this fragrant, charming young woman that I’ve seen her as scratched-limbed and tangle-haired as some wild girl of the woods. What a pair we were, Eve! Did you ever dream we’d make it?
“Wade,” the luxury of his name was like wine in her mouth, “oh, Wade, why did you stay away from me so long?”
“Because it took time, my dear love, finding out if I had the freedom and the right to come and claim you. When young Larry wrote to say he’d met a girl called Eve Tarrant, it came hard not to write back to say I knew you as well–knew you better than anyone else on earth.”
Wade turned to his son–his son who had no idea [182-183] that this tall, lean, grey-eyed man was his father, though the likeness now they stood together was striking. “I love this lady,” Wade said simply. “And a lovely lady she is–I couldn’t offer her less than marriage, and for years I’d not seen or heard anything of my wife and I didn’t know if she was alive or dead. It took time finding out, and now–”
He paused significantly and his hands tightened possessively on Eve’s.
Larry drew his underlip between his teeth, his grey eyes staring a moment into his father’s. Then he looked at Eve and she knew what he saw . . . he saw the love she couldn’t hide or deny or ever lose again . . . her love for Wade.
“So this was the guy who got you out of Africa?” Larry said. “It’s a small world.”
For Eve it was suddenly a wonderful world, and she could feel herself smiling at Wade with the funny and the tragic memories all mirrored in her eyes. How well he looked! How vital and sure and ready to make a life for them together. She swayed a little with the happy reaction of it, and he caught her to him and when his arms closed around her she gave a sigh of pure satisfaction and knew she was safe in that harbour on the edge of dreamland.
“You’re pleased to see me, then?” he murmured.
“Delirious.” Her eyes smiled up into his, lustrous with love. “Will I wake up to find you gone again?”
“Not in this life,” he promised. “Do you reckon young Larry will forgive me for taking his girl away from him?”
They both glanced at Larry, who had his hands thrust deep into his trouser pockets and was regarding [183-184] them with a frown . . . a studious, intrigued frown.
“Do you know,” he said, “I never realised before that people in love have a look of being part of each other. It’s fascinating. You two really do belong together, don’t you?”
“Some boy, isn’t he?” Wade said quietly, with more meaning than his son could ever realise. “You’ll go far, my–my young cousin.”
Larry shrugged, grinned. “I could punch your nose in, Wade, except that you’d probably punch my head in! She’s a great gal–you take care of her.”
“I intend to.” Wade locked his arm securely about Eve. “I won’t let go of her any more–the last time hurt too damned much.”
At that moment, Mrs. Mitchell walked into the lounge with the tea-tray, and a thin, humorous-faced man with sandy hair followed her. “Guess what, Dad,” Larry said to him, “these two know each other! Would you credit it? I bring a girl home for the first time and this darned mercenary comes strolling in and takes her away from me.”
“That’s a mercenary all over,” Stan Mitchell smiled, strolling to the tall young man who called him father. He flung an arm about the slim shoulders and hugged Larry. “You’ve plenty of time for love affairs, my boy. You’ve got to work hard and become a fine doctor. That’s what we’d like to see, eh, Wade?”
Eve saw the glance that passed between the two men and she knew that Larry would never be told that the tall, lean mercenary Major had fathered him. Later on she learned herself from Moira Mitchell that while Wade had been stationed with the regular army in Malaya his wife had badly neglected the baby boy, and [184-185] upon Wade’s return to England he had flung her out of his life, acquired custody of his son and placed him in the care of his cousin and her husband. It had seemed easier, better for the child to be called Mitchell, and to think of the couple as his parents. The years had gone by, until the moment had slipped away for telling him the truth. Wade didn’t want him to know the truth, that his mother had been a tramp who had cared more for a good time than her husband and child.
Larry loved and respected the Mitchells, and they in their turn had grown to think of him as their very own son. Wade would do nothing to alter that . . . the complex pattern of fate that brought love and pain and wasn’t to be struggled against. It had its way with everyone, for good or bad, and watching Wade at the lunch table, looking the same and yet looking so attractive in his well-cut grey suit with a speckless white shirt and dark grey tie, Eve felt a surge of happiness so close to tears that she had to bite hard on her lip in order to hold them back.
She reached out instead and touched his hand, as if to make sure of his reality, and she saw Larry glance at them as Wade carried her hand to his lips and kissed it.
Eve met Larry’s eyes and silently begged him to understand that it hadn’t been her wish to hurt him, but the love she felt for Wade was so strong, so irresistible, so hungry after all the waiting, the hopeless build-up of feeling that he must be dead because he didn’t attempt to find her again.
But he had been hoping for his freedom . . . searching for it with the help of a lawyer, and when it came into his grasp he had been unable to stay away from her any longer. She smiled into his eyes, this man who had [185-186] saved her life more than once, and who had now saved her heart from being closed to glowing, joyful love . . . the love she had thought lost somewhere in Africa.
After lunch she and Wade slipped away into the garden, there to kiss and to talk of the future . . . their future together on his fruit farm on the edge of the desert.
“You’ll love the smell of citrus and desert winds,” he said. “At dawn, and at the fall of dusk. I’ve recently bought a pair of Arab horses and we’ll ride, Eve–we’ll take long gallops across the sands and enjoy all that sense of freedom together.”
“It will be heavenly–oh, Wade, I thought I’d never see you again, never hear your voice, never see this deep line in your cheek when you smile at me.” She reached up and drew her fingers down his warm dark face. “You sent me away from you–you told me to go and marry a man my own age. What made you come to your senses? What made you realise that our kind of love couldn’t be torn out of the heart as easily as that?”
“Riding alone in the desert,” he murmured. “Wanting you there beside me with the desert sun shining on your foxfire hair, and needing you in my arms when the moon shone across those sands and turned them to silver and sable. God, how I wanted you! When Larry wrote to me about you, I was staggered–he’s my boy and I was tempted to be noble and let him have you. But you’re mine, Eve!” His arms tightened possessively around her. “I brought you through the jungle and saw you safe aboard that plane–mine, my own darling deb, with spirit and courage and so much warmth of heart. You belonged to me–to me, and I was lonely as hell. I had to come and get you. I figured that Larry’s only a [186-187] boy and with him it’s only calf-love, but with me, it means my very life. I want you! I must have you!”
“You have me, Major.” Held close and hard to him beneath an apple tree, she smiled, then suddenly reached up and plucked an apple. “May I tempt you with this, darling?”
“I don’t need an apple to be tempted by you, lady.” And tilting back her head he laid his lips on hers in a kiss whose piercing sweetness and desire she would remember all her life. The apple fell to the grass as she curved her arms about his neck and held him close to her . . . for always.