Authors: Jean S. MacLeod
Jean S. Macleod
She went for a child but stayed for a man
Katherine soon knew she was in trouble! She agreed to take a “tug-of-love” child to Scotland, out of his father's reach. Coralie the mother, obviously loved her son and was frightened for him, and Katherine believed her.
Unfortunately Katherine's mission failed when Charles Moreton snatched the child—and Katherine—whisking them to his remote Highland home, to hold them virtual prisoners there.
But Katherine learned there were two sides to every story ... Whose should she believe?
The flat was grossly overcrowded, and Katherine wished she hadn’t come. Most of the people there were strangers to her, although she had lived and worked in London for the past two years, but she had accepted the invitation on impulse on the eve of going on holiday because she had suddenly become aware of a loneliness she could not explain away merely by telling herself that she had given everything to her career during these past two years, only to find herself out of a job because her elderly boss had died and his younger successor had brought his own private secretary into the office with him.
Henry Bellinger had been more like a father to her than an indulgent employer and his breezy American charm had won her over at their very first meeting, claiming her allegiance thereafter as a matter of course, so that his death had been a great blow to her. In the two crowded years in which they had worked together neither of them had taken a holiday, and Katherine had been deeply touched when she had been left sufficient money to go away for a while and enjoy herself, as Henry had put it in his will.
Looking around her, she wondered idly how so many people had been able to crowd into an average-sized room. It seemed that they were all talking at cross purposes and the resultant noise was deafening.
‘Hullo!’ someone observed at her elbow. ‘I think we ought to know each other.’
She turned to find a girl about her own age squeezing between two of their fellow guests to confront her with an engaging smile which was vaguely familiar.
‘You’ll have to prompt me,’ she said.
‘St Monica’s, Hayley Hill.’ The smile was wide and friendly. ‘You’re Katherine Rivers, aren’t you? We went to school together.’
‘Coralie Edgar!’ Katherine remembered. ‘Of course!’ The years slid away—seven years, to be exact—and she was back at St Monica’s, a lanky schoolgirl who had looked up to Coralie Edgar from afar, Coralie who had been the captain of hockey and head girl, to boot, someone so far removed from the introspective fourth former of those bygone days that she might have existed in another world.
remember!’ Coralie smiled. ‘And I felt sure I couldn’t be mistaken.’
‘Are you living in London?’ Katherine asked the obvious question because she couldn’t think of anything more original to say. She was hopeless at the sort of light conversation which accompanied such encounters and usually ended in a broken sentence with people drifting off to speak with someone else. ‘I suppose you are or you wouldn’t be here. I was told it was a local get-together.’
Coralie nodded. ‘You could call it that,’ she agreed. ‘I don’t know very many people here, either.’ Her blue eyes scanned the other occupants of the room with a suggestion of apprehension in their depths. ‘It’s frightening, isn’t it?’ she ran on. ‘All these people gabbling away about nothing in particular to other people they hardly know.’
‘I was thinking that,’ she admitted. ‘Eventually, I find myself without a voice, but that might just be because I’m out of practice.’
Coralie nodded, sipping some of the wine from an overfull glass.
‘I generally spill it all over myself,’ she admitted ruefully, ‘or over someone else!’ Once again the anxious blue eyes scanned the room. ‘I came here looking for someone,’ she confessed, ‘but he hasn’t put in an appearance. He’s the unpredictable sort, and it was more or less a business meeting, anyway.’
‘I’m sorry,’ said Katherine.
‘Don’t be!’ The blue eyes were studying her closely. ‘Tell me what you’ve been doing since you left St Monica’s.’
‘That isn’t a very tall order,’ she said. ‘I was a secretary for three years, and then I went to work with an American firm as private secretary to the boss.’
Coralie’s eyebrows lifted in evident surprise.
‘Well, well!’ she said almost patronisingly. ‘Do you travel a lot?’
‘I used to when Mr. Bellinger was alive.’
Katherine nodded. ‘I’m taking a holiday now because he left me enough money to buy a car and go off for a while,’ she explained.
‘Where will you go?’ Coralie asked the question with a suggestion of indifference in her pleasant voice.
‘I’ve made up my mind to go to Scotland,’ Katherine told her. ‘It’s years since I’ve been there and I’ve always wanted to go back.’
‘I can’t think why,’ said Coralie. ‘I used to live there.’ Her mouth hardened into a thin line, stealing away some of her beauty. ‘I married a Scot, but that’s past tense now.’ Katherine glanced at the bare third finger of her left hand.
‘We’re divorced,’ Coralie said without bitterness. ‘It didn’t work out.’
‘I’m sorry.’ Katherine wasn’t quite sure what to say next or if anything was really expected of her. ‘It must have left—a tremendous gap in your life,’ she added sympathetically.
‘Not really.’ The blue eyes were still searching the room. ‘You see, I had my career. I never realised how much it meant to me till I was on my own again. In some ways it was sheer bliss to be free. In others—’ Coralie hesitated, seeming to look at Katherine fully for the first time, her blue eyes faintly calculating. ‘In others,’ she repeated deliberately, ‘it was not so easy. I had a child, you see—a small boy who meant a great deal to us both.’
Katherine waited, but that seemed as far as Coralie’s explanations were prepared to go.
‘Don’t say you’re sorry,’ she added with a hard little movement of her mouth which was scarcely a smile. ‘It was just one of these things, and I made my own decision.’
‘Tell me about your career,’ Katherine prompted. ‘You were always clever at school.’
It was still as Coralie Edgar that she remembered this lovely, talented girl, and now it seemed that Coralie was in need of sympathy, at least.
Coralie’s eyes lit up.
‘It was always an obsession with me,’ she confessed. ‘You know—something I had to do. Even before art school, designing came easy to me, and afterwards I was on my way. I’d got at least a foot in the door before I married, and now I know I shouldn’t have given it up. Not entirely,’ she added firmly. ‘It was such a waste of training, a sort of betrayal of my given talents, if you like, and yet I suppose I was in love and marriage was the ultimate goal. Are you married, Katie?’ she asked inquisitively.
She had used the old name as if they had been the closest of friends all these years ago, and Katherine smiled a little as she shook her head.
‘I’ve never been asked,’ she said.
‘That’s hard to believe,’ returned Coralie, studying her more closely. ‘You were never a beauty at school—always too thin, if I remember—but you had a quality about you, a remoteness, perhaps, which was interesting. Without that titian hair of yours and your serious look you would be ordinary, but as it is—’ She surveyed Katherine critically. ‘Have you ever thought of modelling?’
Katherine shook her head.
‘I’m happy enough as I am,’ she said. ‘I’ll have to look for another job when my holiday is over, of course, but I think I ought to stick to the work I know.’
Surprisingly Coralie drew her aside, finding a vacant space beside the wall.
‘I’m in a spot, Katie,’ she confided. ‘The most awful predicament, in fact.’ Tears filled her eyes, threatening to spill over as she rushed on: ‘I’m not an emotional sort of person as a rule, but my ex-husband is making things difficult for me at present. I love my child, and he’s trying to kidnap him.’
‘Surely not!’ Katherine exclaimed. ‘If he loved you—’
‘That’s all in the past,’ she declared. ‘He’s completely embittered now and I can’t pretend that I’m still in love with him, but I won’t let him have my child. Sandy is shy and terribly sensitive. I need him near me, but the fact is that if I have to further my career by going abroad I could easily lose him. I would have to be away from London from time to time and I couldn’t take him with me.’ She paused, drawing in a deep breath. ‘If only someone—some stranger—could get him to the Lake District for me, my sister would look after him till all this blows over.’
‘Hide him, do you mean?’ Katherine felt aghast.
‘In a way, Katie, I really do care about him,’ Coralie protested as her carefully-manicured fingers tightened on Katherine’s arm. ‘You must have been
to help me,’ she added. ‘Will you do it?’
Torn between surprise and an odd sort of pity for her former schoolfellow, Katherine hesitated. She was the person on the spot as far as Coralie was concerned, but what did she really know about this girl who had made such an outrageous suggestion? They had never been friends. Coralie had lived in a world apart, the brilliant senior pupil who had taken everything in her stride—head girl, captain of this and that, there had been no question about her superiority, yet here she was confessing with tears in her eyes that her marriage had been unsuccessful and she could not cope with the aftermath of parting, that she was virtually afraid. It was evident that her child meant a great deal to her, but not quite so much as a brilliant career.
Wondering why she should have any doubts about Coralie’s priorities, she could only think of the ‘intensely shy’ little boy and feel a tremendous pity both for Coralie and the man she had married.
‘What about Sandy?’ she asked apprehensively.
‘He’s only three and a bit and a perfect darling,’ Sandy’s mother said. ‘He’d go with you like a shot.’
It seemed strange to Katherine that a child of that age should transfer his affections so easily to a stranger, but possibly Coralie knew her own son best.
‘Will you do it?’ she begged. ‘I have to know right away. There’s really no time to lose.’
Almost forced into acceptance, Katherine said reluctantly:
‘I’m leaving in the morning. Surely that’s very little time for you to prepare?’
‘It’s perfect!’ Coralie declared. ‘Katie, you’ve no idea how much this means to me. I have to go to New York in a day or two and he’ll be safe with my sister. She’s an artist of sorts, with a cottage near Bassenthwaite. I don’t know why she lives there, because it must be about the loneliest place on earth, but it seems to suit her. Every now and then she comes to London for a showing of her paintings at one or other of the galleries and makes a lot of money. We meet then, but she hasn’t been here for some time. We’re close, of course, and she’ll take Sandy for as long as I need to leave him.’
‘I really ought to meet Sandy,’ said Katherine. ‘It’s such short notice. After all, he’d be going away with a complete stranger.’
‘I told you not to worry about that,’ Coralie persisted with a slight edge to her voice. ‘He’s completely amenable and he adores his aunt. It will only be for a day and you’re travelling north, anyway. The Lake District is not so very far out of your way.’
‘No,’ Katherine agreed readily enough. ‘I had some idea of making Windermere my first stop, as a matter of fact.’
‘Then it wouldn’t be too far for you to go on to Bassenthwaite,’ Coralie reflected with relief. ‘Do this for me, Katie, and I’ll be eternally grateful,’ she added, drawing in a deep breath.
‘I meant to leave early tomorrow morning,’ said Katherine, still not fully convinced that she should do this thing. ‘The traffic out of London is lighter then and I’m not the world’s best driver.’
‘That’s ideal,’ Coralie declared. ‘I can be at your place as early as you like. It will be better that way,’ she concluded. ‘I feel I’m being watched.’
‘Are you sure?’ Katherine asked, finding an old envelope with her address on it.
‘Absolutely.’ Coralie took the envelope and placed it in her own handbag. ‘I trust you. I need your help. Afterwards I’ll make it up to you, somehow. Just get Sandy safely to Bassenthwaite and I’ll be eternally grateful. There’s no more I can say.’
Looking swiftly about her, she made for the door as if she were actually being followed.
Katherine stood where she was, feeling that she had bitten off more than she could chew, even if the undertaking was only for a day. Kidnapping was an ugly word which she had never really thought about before, and surely the child’s father must be some kind of monster to inflict such a situation on someone he had once loved. Yet these things did happen, she supposed, when emotions got out of hand and people inflicted heartache on one another out of another kind of love. Affection for his child was as much a man’s prerogative as a woman’s, but this time it seemed that Coralie’s ex-husband was stepping outside the law.
When she looked across the crowded room she was immediately aware of a tall man making his way towards her. Standing head and shoulders above the other guests, he looked almost out of place in the crowded flat with its brilliant lighting and effusive, chattering groups talking far too loudly and laughing a great deal. He was a man accustomed to being out of doors, she thought fleetingly, although he was dressed conventionally enough in a city suit. The fact that he was appraising her with a steady stare made her turn her head away. He would be a man who would go for what he wanted without hesitation, and she was hardly surprised to find him at her elbow when she turned towards the door.
Suddenly her heart seemed to miss a beat as a pair of enigmatic grey eyes fastened on her own.
‘This is Charles,’ their hostess introduced them in the modern idiom of no surnames. ‘Charles—Katherine. You ought to have all sorts of things in common,’ she added vaguely. ‘You’re both Scots and terribly attached to your native land.’
‘Does that mean you live in Scotland?’ the tall man asked, his scrutiny demanding now.
‘No, but I go there as often as I can,’ Katherine admitted, liking him although the grey eyes had hardened as he assessed her. ‘Millie said you were a Scot and I think I’d almost guessed that. You look—intolerant of the London scene.’
‘Not entirely.’ The searching grey eyes were still intently on hers. ‘I have to come here occasionally on business, but I prefer the freedom of what Millie calls “our native land”. Which part of Scotland do you claim?’
‘Nowhere specific at the moment. My parents are dead and I’ve been working in London for the past two years with frequent visits abroad, but I was born in Perthshire and I thought I’d go back there, if only for a visit.’
‘Which means you’ll be leaving London in the near future,’ he suggested. ‘It doesn’t give us much time to become acquainted.’
A faint colour dyed her cheeks and she was suddenly conscious of her quickened heartbeats, aware that she had never been so immediately attracted to anyone before.
‘I wonder if I’ll regret the fact,’ she said.
Smiling up at him, she was aware of a sudden cold reserve in him, a calculated questioning of the account she had given of herself.
‘Can I get you another drink?’ he asked, relieving her of her empty glass.
‘I really must go.’ There was an element of self-protection in her refusal. ‘I have an early start in the morning.’
‘Going where?’ He was standing between her and the door almost as if he would bar her only means of escape.
‘Nowhere in particular,’ she lied warily for no very clear reason. ‘If I’m driving any distance I like to get away before the business traffic thickens, and the only way to do that is to get up at dawn!’
‘Do you mean to drive far?’ he asked idly, setting down his own empty glass. ‘I presume you have your own car?’
‘Not here.’ She had evaded the primary question. ‘I live near enough to walk back to my own flat.’
‘It’s raining,’ he said. ‘Let me drive you home.’
There seemed to be no point in refusing his offer since she was ill equipped for walking in the rain.
‘I didn’t bring a coat,’ she confessed. ‘It was fine enough when I set out.’