Showing Askett Hall to Sally and Alice was a lot of fun, and for the first time Ben could remember, the title and estate didn’t feel like a millstone but instead full of possibilities. More, the house began to feel like a home rather than a museum as the three of them explored all the hidden corners, playing hide-and-seek in the public rooms after closing, enjoying a wintry picnic in the closed area of the grounds, toasting marshmallows in the fire in the Great Hall. Ben couldn’t help but plan for the future, imagining Alice learning to ride in the grounds, showing her his favourite swimming spot, building her a tree house.
And in all those future plans he saw Sally, joining in the adventures alongside them. He wanted the full package, his daughter and her mother. But although he felt the old spark between them, felt that she was as aware of him as he of her, neither made a move. This family they were creating was still too new, too fragile. But he wanted her.
He sat and stared out of the window at the dark parkland beyond. Sally had taken Alice off to bed a couple of hours ago and not returned and doubts assailed him. Had she thought being given rooms two floors above meant he saw her as not equal? Was she glad of the separation? He toyed with calling her; instead he grabbed a bottle of wine and two glasses and climbed the staircases that led to the nursery floor. The paintwork became less glossy, the carpet turned to runner, the paintings prints rather than originals as he left the third floor, where his siblings resided when home, and he winced. It had seemed a link to his childhood putting Alice in the nursery, where generations of Montgomerys had slept, but now the rooms seemed a slight to her mother.
He knocked gently on Sally’s door and after a moment she opened it. She was still dressed but had clearly retired, a throw and a book on the sofa, a cup of tea on the table.
‘Ben? Is something wrong?’
He held up the wine. ‘I missed you. I didn’t think to ask you if you were coming back.’
‘The reception rooms feel a long way away from here. Alice is used to me being right next door.’
‘You’re right. I’ll fix it for next time. If there is a next time.’
‘Why don’t you come in?’ She held the door open, and he stepped inside and set the wine and glasses onto the table. Ben had no agenda beyond extending the evening but as he turned, Sally was right there and all thought left him. All he knew was that the woman he’d never forgotten was here, right now, in his home, and everything was as it should be. She didn’t speak or pull away as he took her hand and gazed into clear green eyes.
‘I never forgot you,’ he said. ‘Never forgot how good we were together. And we were good.’
She nodded mutely, lips parted, eyes luminous, and all the reasons not to kiss her fled Ben’s mind.
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