Out on the road that lies before me now,
There are some turns where I will spin.
I only hope that you can hold me now
Till I can gain control again.
New York City, 6 October 2100
The room was becoming hot, almost unbearably so. He didn’t know if the hotel’s air-conditioning system had malfunctioned in a terminal way, or if there were simply too many people crammed into what was not the city’s largest conference facility. Either way, breathing was becoming something he could no longer take for granted. He gave unspoken thanks to his commanding officer for not insisting he wear his dress uniform; had he had been required to deliver his address in anything other than a fairly informal jacket and tie , he might well be prostrate on the floor by now, which would certainly not enhance his reputation.
Colonel Scarlet of Spectrum was not in his element. He loathed what he called the “pink and fluffy” parts of his job and lecturing to up and coming recruits topped the p & f list. At one time, he thought ruefully, he would have taken all this in his stride; now, the older he got, the harder it was to look those keen youngsters in the eye and inject a spirit of enthusiasm into the next generation.
He gazed down at the rapt faces of the young men and women before him and, for the first time in his career, felt nothing. No sense of duty. No sense of responsibility. No sense of honour. No sense of anything, really, other than the words playing like a looped tape in his head; what the hell am I doing here?
The answer to that question lay in the past; five months in the past to be precise. On an afternoon in early May, the Mysterons had delivered their most devastating blow to date. During a memorial service on Cloudbase, attended by most of Spectrum's senior personnel both past and present, and many of the world's political leaders, Captain Black and his Mysteron cohorts had attempted to destroy the base and all those on board it. Spectrum’s efforts to thwart disaster had been successful but were not achieved without great cost. The organisation lost not only its commanding officer, General Blue, but also Scarlet’s wife, the former Rhapsody Angel.
And in the aftermath of tragedy, as he knelt on the floor of the base's tranquil, flower-filled chapel, cradling the bodies of his beloved wife and his best friend, Scarlet felt himself plummet into a well of emptiness from which he knew he would never be rescued. People tried, of course; Colonel Green, who replaced General Blue as Spectrum’s Commander in Chief, had quietly and with great kindness, gone about the business of keeping him occupied, keeping him distracted, keeping him from dwelling on the loss of his soul. Seymour Griffiths, the softly – spoken West Indian who had been one of Scarlet’s closest colleagues for over thirty years, understood that helping his friend move forward meant activity. Scarlet was not to be allowed time to think, let alone brood.
In the beginning, that hadn't been difficult to achieve. Seemingly angered by the failure of their most recent threat, the Mysterons plunged the world into a maelstrom of malevolence. Threat followed threat with a frenetic speed that left Spectrum reeling. Scarlet had put aside his grief and with a hate-filled precision that slightly alarmed those around him, he focused his mind and body on avenging the dead.
Inevitably, it didn't last. By September, life had calmed down; even Green was heard to joke that the Mysterons must have gone on vacation. Other terrorist groups also appeared to be lying low and Spectrum allowed itself to relax a little.
For Scarlet, this was not necessarily a welcome turn of events. So called 'downtime' brought with it assignments he normally avoided like the plague – such as lecture tours. In the past, he'd usually got away with this avoidance on the grounds that public speaking was not his forte, an opinion shared by most of his colleagues, including his two former commanding officers. However, the soon-to-be Brigadier Green was made of sterner stuff. He was impervious to persuasion and Scarlet quickly discovered that the words ‘not negotiable’ had been moved further up the rules of engagement.
Not that he particularly cared right now. After he’d been in The Well of Emptiness for two or three months, he’d discovered that in fact, it was far from empty. There were other things living there: unpleasant, frightening entities known as Memory and Anger. He avoided Memory as much as he could, but Anger lurked at every turn, filling his heart and lungs, choking him with bile. The only respite came from Sleep but Sleep would only put in an appearance if he was so physically and mentally exhausted there was no other option. So he chose to collaborate with Green’s regime of relentless activity on the grounds that exhaustion provided a welcome oblivion, if only for a limited amount of time.
He was not, however, labouring under the delusion that keeping busy brought with it any healing properties. Scarlet was now one hundred and fifty-seven days into this new existence without meaning and he knew that standing on a podium in the Versailles Suite of New York’s Carlyle Hotel was unlikely to change anything. Although he was no longer consumed by Anger’s bonfires and Memory had become a little easier to be around, Emptiness ruled the roost. He would always be in The Well.
Faces in front of him suddenly swam before his eyes and he blinked furiously. Swallowing hard, he forced himself to concentrate on his notes and keep his voice steady. Christ, Adam, he thought. Why is it me up here and not you? You were always better at this stuff. I’m a soldier, not a ruddy politician. I’m not cut out to make speeches.
As always, there was no reply.
He looked down at the audience and realised he had paused in his delivery. In the first few rows, faces were gazing back in slightly puzzled expectation. He tried to continue but the words wouldn’t come. The notes in front of him might have been written in hieroglyphics for all the sense they made. Sweat poured down his back as he fought unsuccessfully to retain his grip.
There was a familiar buzzing sound in his ears and he couldn’t focus properly. Not now, he thought frantically, knowing what would come next; trembling, nausea, flashing lights behind his eyes and then, if he completely lost control, a terrifying descent into darkness. These ‘episodes’ had been happening regularly of late, but usually in private, so no one else witnessed his weakness. This was a different matter; collapsing on stage in front of a hundred and ten people would be the ultimate humiliation.
Oh Dianne, where are you? I need you. Help me. As the familiar, desperate refrain rang in his head, he clutched the podium in an attempt to stay upright, fighting back the dizziness which threatened to bring him to his knees.
Then, out of the corner of his eye, he saw her. At the back of the room, near the door, there was a flash of green, a tilt of a head and a smile. She was here. The world lurched once more then righted itself. His pulse slowed as his lungs expanded. The pressure inside his head that had reduced his vision to little more than a pinprick receded, allowing him to focus again. She was here and he was saved. Thank God.
The dizziness was still a problem, though. He took a deep breath and said as calmly as he could, “It’s really hot up here. Could someone get me another glass of water before I disgrace myself by passing out on you all? Some of you have travelled a long way for the dubious pleasure of listening to me talk, so I’d hate to cut it short, even if there are those who’d prefer it if I did.”
A ripple of laughter went through the audience and he relaxed slightly as someone hastily thrust a cold drink in his hand. Gulping down the contents of the glass, he gazed over its rim at the woman framed in the doorway and noted her tiny nod of approval. Her eyes seemed to say, “Keep looking at me and it’ll be okay.” He did exactly that and found to his astonishment that it was. Rediscovering both his voice and his notes, he managed to conclude his speech with a degree of confidence. He even got through the inevitable question and answer session with a reasonable amount of aplomb.
Eventually, it was all over bar the hand-shaking and effusive votes of thanks. As the audience filed out of the conference room, most heading in the direction of one of the hotel’s bars, Scarlet wiped his sweaty palms on his trousers and made his way towards the tall, slender blonde who hadn’t moved from the doorway.
“Karen.” There was only one word as he opened his arms and she moved into them, saying simply, “Paul”, as she laid her cheek against his. They stood for a few moments in a wordless embrace until eventually he stepped back and said quietly, “It’s so good to see you. I was beginning to think you wouldn’t make it.”
“So was I,” Karen Svenson admitted frankly. “I’m sorry to be late, Paul. My meeting with the Board over-ran and I almost missed my flight from Boston. Of course, if I’d done what I planned in the first place and borrowed the SvenCorp jet, it wouldn’t have been an issue, but by the time I realised the time, I figured I wasn’t really dressed for piloting anyway, not with these shoes.” She stuck a stiletto-heeled boot out at him as he stared in bemusement.
“Then, just getting a taxi from the airport was a nightmare,” she continued, apparently not expecting a comment from him on her footwear. “Have you ever tried it, Paul? Take my advice, don’t. I’d forgotten what terrible drivers New York cabbies are; and how rude. I’m amazed I’ve arrived intact and with full hearing, because my ears feel like they’ve been singed off.”
Scarlet smiled in fond amusement as she finally paused for breath. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “I’m just glad you’re here now. You didn’t miss much really; just another load of corporate bollocks.”
She shook her head. “I heard enough,” she replied, giving him an appraising look. “Don’t do yourself down. You were very good: they lapped it up. I won’t pretend to understand the latest techno-speak, but the kids were clearly impressed.”
Scarlet groaned. “Bloody buzz words and nonsensical jargon,” he muttered. “Even I don’t know what half of it means. Whatever happened to the days when ‘car parking’ actually meant parking your car? I think it’s time I retired.”
“Retired, you? No chance,” she said lightly, giving him a playful punch on the arm. “You’d be bored silly. What on earth would you do with yourself?”
His eyes gleamed. “Cricket, Karen, cricket. Need I say more? Dianne used to say that moving to Owslebury was her master stroke; the only way she finally got me to leave Winchester was by finding us a house in a village with an impeccable cricketing history. If I spent more time at home, I wouldn’t be just an absentee member of the team. Watching me actually play was on her bucket list, but I suppose....”
His voice trailed off as Memory suddenly thrust a knife through his ribcage, twisting it deep into his heart. He couldn’t breathe and he couldn’t focus. The words, she’ll never get to tick that one off now, went unspoken as hot tears stung his eyelids. Memory was clearly not ready to make peace with him yet.
“Are you okay, Paul?” Karen’s concerned voice finally reached him through the pain and darkness. Forcing air into his uncooperative lungs, he fought his way back to reality.
“Yeah, I’m fine. It was just.... well, you know how it goes. A bit of a wobble, that’s all,” he said, with an attempt at a reassuring smile. “It happens, sometimes. But you’re right, retirement probably wouldn’t suit me; and I dare say the cricket team’ll continue to manage perfectly well without my services.”
“I dare say it will,” she agreed, resting her hand briefly on his arm; a gesture that told him there was no need for further explanation. She understood, of course she did. They belonged to the same exclusive club, membership available only to the recently bereaved. Yet there was a slight awkwardness between them which had never been there before and he knew it was because they were both treading on eggshells as they tried to find their feet in this new, altered state of widowhood.
His hesitant, “Karen, would you like to.....” came at precisely the same moment she voiced her tentative, “Paul, shall we....”
They both laughed and he was about to say, “You first,” when his words were whipped away by a hand landing on his shoulder with the force of a meat cleaver. Startled, he turned his head to gaze into the florid face of Stan Bartowski, code-named Major Cherry. Bartowski was a fifth-generation Pole, born and brought up in the Bronx, with a successful career as an undercover cop before he’d joined Spectrum and rapidly risen to the dizzy heights of heading up its North-American East Coast Division. This he did with remarkable efficiency; although he could be blunt to the point of rudeness and ran his department with a complete disregard for any form of political correctness, his instincts were top notch. His staff didn’t necessarily like him, but they respected his judgement and gave him their loyalty. Scarlet, on the other hand, could barely tolerate him.
“Good speech, Colonel, I think you got the message out there,” he said in his customary bombastic manner, eyeing Scarlet critically. “I’m not sure the casual look was a good idea, though. Wearing your uniform would have given you a little more authority, I feel. I’m rather surprised the Brigadier didn’t insist.”
Scarlet fought back his irritation. Punctilious little twerp, he thought. Just who the hell does he think he is? “It was a judgement call, Stan,” he replied evenly. “Brigadier Green and I both agree that full dress uniform can sometimes be a little intimidating. I prefer an informal approach; it helps folk relax. Besides, I’ve always believed it’s what you say that counts, not what you look like.”
The thinly veiled rebuke was too obvious even for Cherry to miss. He flushed, his round cheeks turning a slightly darker shade of red than his tunic. “Yes, well. As you say, sir. A judgement call,” he replied stiffly, turning his back slightly to greet Scarlet’s companion. “Mrs Svenson, what a pleasure to see you again; although I’m a little surprised you have permission to be here. These events are usually only for serving personnel.”
Karen saw Scarlet’s face darken with anger. He said icily, “I invited Mrs Svenson to join us today, Major. Not that she needs an invitation, of course; as a former Angel pilot and wife of our late Commander- in- Chief, she has every right to be here. Do you have a problem with that?”
Cherry saw his mistake in time. “No, of course not,” he said quickly. “I wasn’t trying to imply...” He turned back to Karen. “You’re very welcome ma’am, and once again, I offer my condolences on the loss of your husband. He was a fine man.”
“Yes, he was. Thank you, Major,” Karen replied, graciously ignoring the politely unctuous tone with its edge of contempt. She decided she’d had enough of Major Cherry. “Paul, didn’t you mention you’d booked us into the restaurant for lunch?” she said, tucking her arm through his. “We’d better go and find our table before they stop serving.”
Cherry had quickly recovered his equilibrium and was not about to be thwarted. “I’m afraid not, Mrs Svenson. I really need to speak to Colonel Scarlet about......operational matters,” he declared firmly. He turned to his fellow officer. “If you recall, sir, we arranged a case conference after the seminar. There’s a lot to discuss.”
Scarlet was equally firm. “Perhaps so, Stan, but not here and not now. The lady needs to eat and I intend to make sure she does. I’ll drop by your office later on this afternoon and we’ll talk then.” He gave Cherry a bland smile. “Will three-thirty suit?”
The major knew when he’d been out-manoeuvred. He acquiesced with a sullen look, trying to contain his disappointment and anger that he was not going to be invited to share a meal with Spectrum’s glitterati. Would never have happened in General Blue’s day, he thought savagely. He knew how to treat his staff; no standing on ceremony with him. No talking down to people; no turning up on the job dressed in friggin’ jeans, for God’s sake. Whatever happened to standards? Old General White would be appalled at how lax things are becoming. He stomped out of the Versailles Suite and headed to the elevator which would take him down to the Carlyle’s underground car park where his Spectrum Saloon Car waited to transport him back to his office on Madison and his normal lunch of pastrami on rye.
“It seems Stanislaus is still the pain in the ass he’s always been,” Karen observed dryly, as they watched Cherry’s departing back.
Scarlet gave her a look of surprise. “I didn’t realise you knew him that well,” he said.
“I don’t really,” she admitted. “But Adam talked about him a lot. He respected Cherry’s abilities, but found him awkward to deal with. We once went out to dinner with him and his wife. He was pleasant enough and she was lovely; but I got the impression he doesn’t like many people. Maybe that’s what happens when you spend twenty years getting down and dirty with the lowlife in the Bronx.”
“He hates me more than most, I think,” Scarlet mused. “He seems to delight in finding ways to trip me up, try to make me look foolish. It’s like a personal vendetta and for the life of me, I can’t figure out why.”
“Oh, that’s easy,” she replied with a grin. “It’s jealousy, pure and simple. You look way better in red than he does, honey.”
“What? You’re telling me he’s got a chip on his shoulder over a uniform? That’s ridiculous!”
She shook her head. “No, it’s not. Think about it, Paul. What’s he got going for him? Not a lot; fat and fifty with a career that’s going nowhere. He knows he’s only in that job because he can’t hack active service any more. He’s a bald, unattractive man who’s had the misfortune to be assigned a colour that doesn’t suit him. I don’t suppose he’s thrilled by what he sees in the mirror every morning. And each time he comes face to face with you, he gets a reminder of everything he’s not. It isn’t surprising he’s hostile.”
Scarlet bristled. “Well, that’s no reason to be difficult,” he said defensively. “What the hell happened to professionalism? Can’t the man put aside his prejudices?”
“Probably not; jealousy is irrational. And in my experience, men are quite as capable of irrational emotion as women, although they seldom admit to it.”
He sighed heavily. “Well, that may be so, but it doesn’t make handling the odious little sod any easier.”
“You’ve allowed him to get under your skin and that’s not like you,” she pointed out briskly. “Take control; bear in mind you outrank him. Don’t let him push your buttons. He’s an obnoxious windbag, that’s all. And now that you feel sympathy for his plight, you can be the bigger man. You can afford to be magnanimous in your pity, you can.....”
“Stop.” Scarlet held his hand up in front of her face. “Just stop, Karen. I appreciate the advice, but I don’t feel remotely sorry for Major Cherry and any issues he has with his appearance won’t affect my attitude towards him in any way. There’s still a good chance I’ll punch his lights out before the day is done.” He yanked his tie loose from his shirt collar and thrust it in his jacket pocket. “Now, can we please, please get out of this room? I’m dying in here.”
She shook her head in mock despair. “There’s no pleasing some people, I guess. Okay, Colonel; lead me to the restaurant, order me a Martini. I could use a restorative.”
“Actually.....” Scarlet paused and gazed out of the hotel window at the glorious autumn foliage. “I’d quite like to get a breath of fresh air. Central Park is just over the road. Fancy a walk in place of lunch? I’ll buy you a burger, if the hunger pangs get too much.”
Karen pulled a face. “Great,” she muttered, feigning disappointment. “Never let it be said you don’t know how to show a girl a good time. Do you run to onions and relish as well?”
“Whatever the lady wants,” he replied blandly. “I’ll even throw in fries, although it might be tough to justify my expenses claim in these straightened times.”
She stuck her tongue out at him and for a second, the years rolled back and he caught a glimpse of the insouciant young woman she’d been thirty-two years ago. Karen Amanda Wainwright, the brilliant mathematician, spy and pilot who, at just twenty-six years of age, had become Spectrum’s Symphony Angel, spear-heading the fight against the Mysterons. Cool under pressure, but impulsive and capricious in her private life, she had immediately captured the heart of reserved, level-headed Adam Svenson, codenamed Captain Blue. It was an attraction of opposites, a relationship many thought would never last; yet the hold had endured up to his death and beyond, undiminished by years of passion, friction and despair.
Stepping out into the bright autumn sunshine on East 76th Street, Scarlet looked at Karen properly for the first time since she’d arrived. At first glance, she appeared at least a decade younger than her fifty-eight years. Slender to the point of emaciation, she was immaculately dressed in a fern-green trouser suit, teamed with a cream lace blouse and black high heeled boots. Dark blonde hair, longer than he remembered, tumbled loosely across her shoulders in an expensively casual fashion. Her skin, surprisingly unlined, was beautifully made up, the pencilled eyebrows arching elegantly over long-lashed hazel-green eyes. The familiar scent of ‘Eternity’, the perfume her husband had always bought for her, hung in the air.
Yet, despite his sudden flash of déjà – vu, Scarlet realised there was little left of the dazzling young woman who’d been his wife’s best friend and had gone on to marry his own best friend. As she turned towards him in the brightness of the sunlit October afternoon, he saw beneath the perfect façade; the deep bluish-purple shadows under her eyes, the sharpness of the jutting collarbones; furrowed lines of exhaustion on her forehead; a slackness around the jaw line that had never been there before.
So: she doesn’t eat and she doesn’t sleep, he thought fleetingly. She’s probably a bigger mess than I am, although why I should be surprised by that, I don’t know.
As they waited for the lights to change to allow them to cross Fifth Avenue, he said, “How are you doing, Karen? How’s business?”
She gave him a sardonic smile. “Well, I haven’t bankrupted us yet, you’ll be surprised to hear.”
“Not surprised at all. I never imagined you would.”
“Really? You must be the only one who didn’t, then – including me.”
Scarlet sighed inwardly. Karen's lack of self-confidence in matters she did not consider to be her forte was legendary. “Not the only one, Karen.” he said, unable to keep a slight note of exasperation out of his voice. “Adam gave you executive control of SvenCorp for a reason. He knew you were the right person for the job.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Oh, yeah? So it wasn’t just to piss off his brother Peter and keep the Svenson family feud going? Let’s face it, at the time of the funeral, no-one knew he’d added a codicil to his will; I certainly didn’t and I was sole executor, for heaven’s sake. Peter thought everything was nicely sewn up, all done and dusted, overall control went to him. He certainly didn’t expect to have his ditzy sister-in-law throwing spanners in the mix. That was fine by me – I’d never wanted to be involved in the business, anyway. But then...to discover Adam hadn’t bequeathed all his shares to the family – he’d left them to me, along with his voting rights....we were all stunned.”
The lights finally changed and they joined the lunchtime crowds forging their way into Central Park. “This is what I don’t understand, Paul,” she continued as they strolled towards Conservatory Water. “Why would Adam give me any financial control of a company that’s listed in the Dow Jones? For crying out loud, I'm so financially inept I can’t hang on to a credit card for five minutes before I flush it down the loo! Why would he even think I’m capable of running a business?”
“Have I what?”
“Flushed a credit card down the loo?”
She glared at him. “Of course not! That was just a figure of speech.”
Scarlet grinned. “There you go, then,” he said. “What’s the problem?”
“The problem is....” she began.
He grabbed her wrists suddenly and turned her to face him. “No, Karen,” he said sternly. “If there’s a problem, it’s you. You’re both the smartest and the dumbest person I’ve ever known and I’m damn sure Adam thought the same. You might underestimate yourself, but he never did. He always understood what you were capable of. If he left you in charge of any part of SvenCorp, it’s because he knew that you’re more than a match for his brother Peter, or any other Svenson, for that matter. You can do it. So, let me ask again; how is business?”
She snatched her hands away, making a show of rubbing her wrists. “God, you’re brutal,” she muttered. ”Have I ever told you how much I hate you?”
“Yes, many times. Now give me an honest answer.”
She paused in her tracks, not heeding the expletives of the elderly lady who cannoned into her from behind. “All right,” she said eventually. “The honest answer is good. No, better than good, actually. We’re doing very well at the moment; I think Adam would be pleased. We’ve expanded into some Asian markets that have been closed to us up till now.”
Scarlet gave her a quick hug. “That’s excellent,” he said. “Is that down to you or Peter?”
She hesitated. “It’s a bit of both, I suppose. Peter’s the one with the experience and the contacts. He does know what he’s doing – most of the time - so I have to let him call the shots. But he’d been trying to negotiate with the Chinese for years and hadn’t gotten anywhere. The trouble is, he’s too bullish and they don’t like that; they prefer a softer approach. So, I persuaded him to let me have a go and it turned out that charm and diplomacy can work wonders; along with a short skirt and a low-cut top, of course. It was a done deal before I’d even fluttered my eyelashes.”
“I’m damn sure it took more than that,” Scarlet replied, with a chuckle. “But it just goes to show that Adam knew what he was about.”
She grimaced. “Perhaps. We’ll see. Peter’s calling it beginner’s luck and maybe he’s right. I’m only too aware of how much I have to learn. I’ve enrolled on a business management course at MIT, just to try to get my head round it all. I’m coping, but only just.”
“I don’t believe you for a second,” he replied with a grin. “A course like that should be a walk round the block for you.”
“Paul, I’m not the bright young thing I used to be. I’ve fried too many brain cells to compete with the best of today’s generation. I’ll be lucky to graduate with a pass.”
“Nah, not you. It’ll be distinctions all the way.”
“Your faith in me is touching,” she replied with a wry smile. “But it’s not so much whether I can do it; it’s whether I want to. Peter’s not the only Svenson who resents what he sees as my intrusion into the family firm; Katherine and David aren’t too happy about it either. They’re occupied with their own divisions, so they don’t interfere too much, but...there are times when the atmosphere is positively toxic.” She turned a downcast face to his. “I just don’t have the energy to deal with it, Paul. I’m so tired; all I want to do is sleep and I can’t.”
“Yeah, I know the feeling,” Scarlet replied soberly. “But look at it this way – it’s keeping you occupied, which everyone seems to think is a good thing.”
She shrugged. “Well, I must admit if Adam only put that codicil into the will to ensure I wouldn’t have too much time on my hands, he played a blinder. It’s certainly worked, even if I could strangle him for doing it.”
“You don’t have to hang on in there if you don’t want to,” Scarlet pointed out. “There’s nothing to stop you from selling your shares and walking away from it all.”
“Yes there is,” she replied with a rueful smile. “Adam. I’d feel like I was letting him down; like I was quitting on him, not just the company. I can’t do that.” She stopped dead in her tracks, blinking furiously. “Oh, Christ, here we go again. I’m so bloody sick of crying. Why can’t the tears just stop?”
Scarlet made no reply. He simply fished a crumpled tissue from the pocket of his jeans and handed it to her. Across the lake, a golden retriever joyfully gave chase to a ball thrown by the owner of a large black Labrador. Both dogs reached the ball at the same moment and vied for possession, barking madly at each other. Two swans, startled by the noise, rose in the air in sudden panic. His eye caught by the commotion, Scarlet watched as the dogs’ owners, a blond man and auburn-haired woman, tried in vain to prise their animals apart. Eventually, size won out and the victorious Labrador raced off with the ball in its mouth, ignoring shouted instructions to come to heel.
“Do you ever......think you see them some place?” Karen asked suddenly, stuffing the mascara-streaked tissue into her shoulder bag. Having recovered her composure, her gaze was on the dog owners, who appeared to have given up on controlling their charges and were now deep in conversation. “Logically, you know it’s not possible, but still, you think.....maybe. Then you look again and realise it’s someone who doesn’t even bear a passing resemblance and you feel like such a fool.”
Scarlet shook his head. “Not to me,” he replied quietly. “I don’t see either of them; which is may be strange, because everyone says it’s common in grief to imagine you’ve seen someone you couldn’t possibly have. I search for them sometimes, hoping I’ll catch a glimpse of a presence, just so I won’t feel so......abandoned. But they’re never there.”
She gave him a thoughtful look, but said only, “I feel like I’ve existed on nothing but caffeine all day. When are you going to lead me to the promised burger, Metcalfe?”
“We’re heading in the right direction,” he reassured her. “It’s just round the corner; New York’s finest mobile takeaway, so I’ve been told. They’ll even supply napkins for an extra dollar. Nothing but the best for you, Angel.”
“Wonderful. I’m salivating already,” she replied sarcastically. “Lucky for you I’m such a cheap date. I bet you’d never get away with treating today’s Angel Squad to junk food eaten on the hoof. They expect finer things.”
He rolled his eyes. “Indeed they do. Madrigal always insists on caviar with her fries and Sonata comes out in hives at the merest whiff of a hot dog. Those girls are high maintenance.”
Karen grinned. “Hey, what can I say? They were my protégées and I trained them well.”
“You certainly did,” he acknowledged as they strolled up Cherry Hill towards Strawberry Fields, the peaceful tear-drop shaped area of Central Park dedicated to the memory of an iconic British pop star. “They’re the best of today’s pilots. I’m dreading the day they decide to step down because I haven’t a clue how we’ll replace them. There just doesn’t seem to be anybody on the horizon who comes close.”
“There will be,” she replied confidently. “Talent usually comes through when you need it.”
“Let’s hope so.” He reached inside his jacket to pull out his wallet as they approached a large white van bearing the red-lettered legend, ‘Willie’s World-Famous Burger Bar’. “Look, why don’t you grab that picnic table over there while I get our grub? Do you want cheese on yours?”
She nodded. “The full works, please; and a diet Coke.”
“Okay. Back in five.”
By the time he’d returned with a loaded tray, she’d settled herself on a wooden trestle table and was busily checking messages on her phone. “Can’t leave business behind for five seconds, can you?” he teased, handing her a plastic container and a napkin rolled around a knife and fork.
Snapping shut the communication device, she pulled a face. “Not by choice, I’m afraid,” she answered soberly. “I just need to try and stay one step ahead at the moment. That way, I can hopefully avoid any nasty surprises that may be lobbed my way by the in-laws.” Dipping a French fry in relish, she nibbled delicately on it, sighing in sudden pleasure. “Oh, this is great. I haven’t had fries in years.”
“Some foods are just meant to be eaten outdoors,” he agreed. “Like fish and chips on the pier in Blackpool during the Illuminations. You can’t beat it.”
“Mmm.” Deftly snapping open the can, she took a long swig of her drink before setting it back down on the table. Then she said, “Paul, what’s wrong?”
He paused in the act of raising his cheese burger to his mouth. “Wrong? What do you mean? There’s nothing wrong; apart from the obvious, that is, which we both clearly understand.”
She shook her head. “Don’t kid me; something happened to you up on that podium today. I’m not sure what it was, but there was a moment when you almost lost it. I’ve never seen you do that before. I thought you were going to pass out. You looked dreadful and frankly, you still do. So what’s going on?”
He was silent for a moment, his eyes fixed on the intricate black and white mosaic of John Lennon’s memorial plaque, ‘Imagine.’ “Odd, isn’t it?” he said at last, with a reflective nod towards it. “That was supposed to evoke a vision of peace; hope for a world without war, famine, strife. It’s been here for a hundred and fifteen years and we’re no nearer attaining those ideals than we were back in 1985. I wonder what John Lennon would make of it if he were here now?”
“I think he’d be pleased that people are still singing his songs,” she replied softly. “There aren’t many things that endure as well as music; at the end of the day, it’s a pretty good legacy to leave.”
“I guess so.” Scarlet gave her a pensive look before reaching across the table to close his hand around her fingers. “I’m sorry, Kaz. I didn’t mean to worry you earlier. The truth is, I don’t really know what’s going on with me. I’ve been having......odd spells, lately. I’m not sure what they are, or why I’m having them.”
“What do you mean by odd?” she asked, frowning.
“It’s hard to describe. Sometimes it’s like I’ve been sucked into a black hole. I feel like I’m drowning; or suffocating, it’s not always clear which. I get dizzy, nauseous; I don’t know where I am. If I completely lose control I think I do sometimes pass out, even if it’s only for seconds; a couple of times I’ve found myself on the floor and I don’t know how I got there. It’s really scary.”
Karen looked worried. “Have you talked to the medics? What does Doctor Beige say?”
“That there’s nothing wrong with me; nothing physical, anyway. Her opinion is that it’s all part of the grieving process.”
“Paul, passing out... looking as ill as you do... that’s not normal,” Karen said sharply. She searched his face with accusing eyes. “Are you sure you told her everything? The bit about passing out? You didn’t, did you? I bet she has no idea.”
“Well.... maybe I made light of it,” he admitted, with shame-faced reluctance. “But just talking about it makes me sound like a basket case. I’m telling her it feels like I’m dying and she’s telling me it’s just a panic attack. What kind of idiot does that make me?”
“A bigger one than Eva Javorsky thinks,” she snapped. “You have to come clean, Paul. What if you have one of these episodes when you’re out in the field? You could be in serious trouble and so could everyone around you.”
“That thought does terrify me, I admit,” he said soberly. “It hasn’t happened so far, but......”
“But it might,” she said, finishing his sentence. “So when you get back to Cloudbase, make an appointment to see someone and talk it through. Do it for my sake, if nothing else. I need you conscious and fully-functioning, otherwise how am I going to lean on you as I do?”
He gave her a weak smile. “I’m fine, Karen. I’m all right. Don’t fuss. This will pass, I’m sure.”
She shook her head. “You’re not all right,” she retorted vehemently. “Neither am I; maybe we never will be again. But there is help out there, Paul. I’ve learned to ask for it and now you need to do the same.”
She watched his face carefully, trying to gauge the depth of his confusion and anxiety. He suspected, even if he didn’t want to admit to it, that whatever he was experiencing went beyond the desolation of grief and loneliness. Scarlet’s biggest fear had always been that one day he would be unable to resist surrendering himself to Mysteron control once more. Now, he didn’t know what was happening to him and he was terrified. And so, frankly, was she.
Fighting down her fear in case he sensed it, she said, as lightly as she could, “Why don’t you talk to Doc Fawn? I’m sure he’d love to hear from you. He was just telling me the other day that you and he haven’t spoken since he retired.”
Scarlet raised an eyebrow in surprise. “You’ve been in touch with him?”
“More the other way round, I suppose. He calls me at least once a week, just to see how I’m doing. We have a friendly chat, which usually ends up as a thinly-veiled professional consultation. But oddly enough, I don’t mind the subterfuge; he’s suggested coping strategies that might be of use, given me the names of support groups he thinks I should know about. I must admit, I’ve found some of it helpful. But I think sometimes it’s as much for his sake as mine; he’s stuck out on that bloody great estate in Oz, with only a handful of private patients to occupy his time. In my opinion, he’s going stir crazy with boredom; he’s never been one for hobbies or time off. Now he’s got more of it than he can handle. And he’s lonely, Paul; not many of our generation seem to keep in regular touch with him. He misses his friends.”
Scarlet twisted his mouth wistfully. “Well, I never thought I’d say this, but I sort of miss him, too; even if the old reprobate rarely gave me a reason to think he thought of me as anything more than a gigantic headache. Eva – Doc Beige- is great and I do trust her, but somehow, it’s not the same.”
“Then call him. I suspect he’ll regard your mysterious attacks as an irresistible challenge. He’ll have you sorted in no time.”
She said this with a brisk confidence she didn’t feel, but was rewarded with a forced smile. “I’ll think about it,” he said casually, his expression neutral. She fought down her irritation. He was playing the usual game of smooth surfaces with her, but on this occasion, she didn’t want to participate.
He saw her exasperated frown and gave her fingers a quick squeeze. “Karen, look; I’ll call him, I promise,” he said. “Now can we please talk about something else?”
She sighed heavily and withdrew her hand. “Very well, I’ll change the subject. Did I tell you I’m selling the house in Berkshire?”
Scarlet was always amused by Karen's resolutely American pronunciation of the county name, despite the number of years she and her late husband had owned property in the UK. “I don’t think so,” he replied, wrinkling his brow. “Are you sure about this? I thought you loved it there.”
“I do, but it’s not really practical any more. If I’m serious about SvenCorp, I need to be in Boston full-time. I can’t keep an eye on Peter from a distance of three thousand miles; and a degree in business management does require attendance at lectures. I was a little worried about being so far away from Mom and Charles, but he has made a good recovery from the heart attack last year and they’ve both been at pains to convince me they don’t need a nursemaid.”
Scarlet nodded his understanding. Karen's widowed mother had married Spectrum's former Commander-in-Chief, Sir Charles Gray, almost twenty years ago, shortly before his retirement at the age of sixty-five. They had moved to a pretty little village in the Berkshire countryside, and enjoyed regular visits from family and friends. But as the years passed, their age and failing health had prompted Karen and Adam to purchase a house in the area so that they would be nearer in case of emergencies; and indeed, Karen's mother had been immensely thankful for her daughter's hands-on support during her husband's illness. Fortunately, the former General White, an extremely sprightly eighty-three year old, had made an excellent recovery.
“Where will you live, then?” he asked. “Seeing as how Peter and his family now have the house in Boston, I mean.”
I’ve bought an apartment in Cambridge, not far from MIT,” she explained. “It’s a nice area and the commute into Boston is easy. I must say I’m having fun furnishing. Freya has been a great help; she loves antique fairs almost as much as I do.”
Scarlet started in surprise. Freya Saville Svenson, also known as Lieutenant Teal of Spectrum, was technically Karen’s stepdaughter. Born in complicated and unfortunate circumstances to the then Captain Blue and Cloudbase technician Lesley Saville, she had never been properly acknowledged by her stepmother until her father’s untimely death. To her credit, Karen had then made a determined effort to get to know the young woman who was her husband’s only child, but Scarlet hadn’t realised they’d been spending so much time together.
He said lightly, “I understand now why she’s asked for so much leave lately. Be careful, Karen; you’re a bad influence. You’ll turn her into a spendthrift like yourself.”
“I doubt it. There’s far too much of her father in her for that,” she replied, a shade caustically. “It’s the other way round, actually; she’s teaching me restraint. Soon I’ll be able to dispense with the weekly sessions at Shopaholics Anonymous.”
“Very funny. I am glad you’re getting on well, though; and not before time. Adam would have been delighted.”
“Yes, he would. I’d like to believe that somewhere out there, he knows.” She bent her head suddenly, muttering “Goddammit,” as she foraged in her bag for the rogue used tissue. Not finding it, she dashed her hand across her eyes in frustration, smearing the perfectly applied make-up. As he’d done before, Scarlet silently handed her another handkerchief, watching as she pressed it under her lower eyelids to soak up the moisture.
“I’ve been such a fool, Paul,” she said at last. “I’ve wasted so many years in bitterness, resenting a child who didn’t choose her parents or the circumstances of her birth and who has done nothing to me other than remind me of what I couldn’t have; a child of my own. None of that was her fault. I know I’m lucky to have a second chance and I’m so grateful she’s allowing me to make up for lost time. She’s a lovely girl and Adam was rightly proud of her.”
Scarlet opened his mouth to say, Adam would have been so proud of you too, when she forestalled him by abruptly rising from the park bench to deposit the remains of her meal in a nearby waste bin. He watched as she kept her face averted, brushing the golden-orange leaves off the shoulders of her jacket as they fluttered down in the breeze.
Resuming her seat, she swung a long, graceful leg back over the picnic bench, saying, “What a lovely day this is. I think I’ve been spending too much time cooped up in one office or another. I don’t get enough fresh air.”
“Me neither. Although it’s debatable as to how fresh the air in New York can possibly be. It’s got to be one of the most polluted places on the planet.”
“True, but the Park is still a bit of an oasis, I think. It’s so peaceful. Hard to believe we’re right in the heart of one of the busiest urban metropolises in the world.” She directed a fleeting smile to a toddler making a determined escape from his harassed young mother by running in the opposite direction as fast as his tiny legs would allow.
Scarlet followed her gaze. “She’d better not give him too much of a head start, otherwise he’ll be in the lake before she knows it,” he observed cryptically.
Karen laughed. “Odd, isn’t it? What drives us, I mean. As soon as we make it to full upright status, we seem determined to be off, even if we don’t know why we’re running or where we’re going to.”
“Maybe it’s just pushing the boundaries. How far can we go before we fall flat on our faces? Thankfully in his case, not very far,” he added, as the little boy tripped and fell face first onto the grass with a loud wail.
They watched as his mother rushed to scoop him up, soothing his screams while simultaneously checking for scratches. Finally, pacified by an ice cream cone, he was re-positioned and firmly strapped into his buggy.
Karen turned back to Scarlet. “I’m so glad we’ve been able to do this, Paul. I’ve really enjoyed it. When are you due back on Cloudbase?”
“I’ll probably pick up an SPJ at the airport tonight. What about you? Are you flying back to Boston this evening?”
She shook her head. “I decided to stay over till tomorrow, maybe do a little shopping. I’ve booked into a hotel. Actually, I was rather hoping I could persuade a handsome man to have dinner with me.”
He grinned. “I’m sure you could. Want me to see if I can find one for you?”
“Oh, you!” she retorted, giving his ankle a light kick. “I can find my own toy boys, thank you very much. In the meantime, you’ll do.”
“I’m flattered,” he said dryly. “But I didn’t exactly come dressed for dining in a posh restaurant.”
“Oh, I don’t know. You look fine; more anonymous than your uniform, at least. I must admit I share Major Cherry’s surprise that you’re not wearing it, though. Didn’t think Griff would go along with that.”
She caught the faint hint of guilt in his expression. “Oh, I get it. He doesn’t know, does he?”
Scarlet shrugged. “We didn’t have a conversation about it. It’s not like he needs to inspect me before I set out for school every morning.”
“So you just decided to do your own thing. Why, may I ask?”
“Not sure. Call it a small act of rebellion, perhaps. I seem to be having a lot of them lately. ‘Refusing to conform’ is probably the official title.”
Karen raised her eyebrows. “You’ve always been a maverick, Paul,” she said, picking her words with care. “But you’re not reckless; and no-one has a greater sense of duty or pride in the organisation than you. So what’s changed?”
“Me,” he replied flatly. “I’ve changed. Or maybe I haven’t; maybe I’m just sick of being so readily identified by a uniform. At least if I wear civvies I can blend in. I feel like me – whoever and whatever that is.” He swigged back the last of his Coke and tossed the can into the bin with a perfect aim.
Karen cast him a troubled glance but said only, “Well, don’t worry about dinner. We can eat in; I have a suite at the Roosevelt. The chef there is said to be excellent.” She caught the look on his face. “What? Room Service not good enough for you?”
“Karen. You’ve booked an entire suite for one night? Are you mad?”
“Well, it’s not as if I can’t afford it,” she protested. “I decided it was time to look on the bright side of being a rich widow. Besides, if Adam charged me with making even more money for the family firm, surely it’s only fair that I get to spend some of it?”
“True,” he acknowledged. “And he always said that conspicuous consumption is what you do best, so why break the habit of a lifetime?”
“Actually, that’s not what Adam thought I did best, but we won’t go there,” she shot back at him unexpectedly. The expression in her eyes made her meaning unmistakeable and there was a brief, awkward silence before she said quietly, “Sorry. I...don’t know why I said that. It was inappropriate. I guess my sense of humour is a little off-kilter these days.”
He forced a smile to cover his discomfort. “At least you still have a sense of humour,” he said lightly. ”I think mine went down the pan a long time ago.” He glanced down at his watch. “Oh Lord, look at the time. I’d better get going or I’ll be late for Cherry’s summit meeting. God knows why he’s insisting on it, but Seymour agreed it was a good idea. For some unfathomable reason, he wants to keep the idiot sweet.”
“Well, like him or loathe him, you can’t deny Stan’s knowledge and experience,” she replied, picking up the straps of her bag. “It’s early days for Griff as C-in-C; he’s probably still finding his feet. He’ll want to pick brains and foster goodwill at the same time. No point in alienating people if you don’t have to.”
Scarlet raised an eyebrow. “Is that a quote from the Blue Gospel?”
“Probably,” she acknowledged, swinging her feet back over the bench and smoothing down her jacket. “He always said that diplomacy was nine-tenths of the job; if you got that right, the rest would follow. Bear that in mind when you talk to Cherry.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he replied, giving her a mock salute. “I’ll make nice and try not to hit him, although I’m not promising anything. Now, what time shall I be at your hotel this evening?”
“Seven o’clock will be fine. We can have a drink in the bar before dinner. Do try not to get yourself arrested for assault before then. I don’t want to be stood up and have to spring you out of jail on the same night.”
“I’m flattered that you’d be prepared to post bail for me. These days, I suspect that most people, especially my family, would just leave me to rot.”
Her eyebrows met in a quick frown. “Why? Has something happened with the kids?”
He hesitated. “It’s.....complicated. Let’s just say I don’t think I’m going to be nominated for any ‘Father of the Year’ awards.”
Karen cast him a worried glance. Scarlet’s relationship with his two children had never been straight-forward. His frequent absences during key moments in their young lives, coupled with the obvious ‘differences’ caused by his Mysteronisation, had led to awkwardness between them and at times, slight embarrassment. Despite the efforts of their mother in providing as normal an upbringing as possible, there was no doubt that the Metcalfe children had sometimes felt themselves set apart from their peers.
Scarlet’s son, named Adam after his godfather, but suitably nicknamed Ace, was the more uncomplicated of the two. Now aged twenty-four, he’d inherited his father’s black hair and blue eyes and his mother’s easy-going, down-to-earth nature. Gentle and serious-minded, he’d shown no interest in following the male Metcalfe tradition of opting for a military career; instead, he’d chosen to take up an offer of accountancy training with his godfather’s family firm, SvenCorp.
Karen suspected that this decision was based partly on rebellion. Ace would have been well aware he was probably disappointing his father. Nevertheless, the young man was doing well in his new career and enjoying a fledgling romance with Freya. Karen knew how delighted his mother would have been if she could have witnessed this turn of events; Dianne had long dreamed of a merging of the Metcalfe and Svenson gene pools, even though her husband had teased her mercilessly over her romantic aspirations.
Susannah Metcalfe, aged just twenty, was cut from a different cloth to that of her brother. Her extrovert outward presentation to the world covered a mass of insecurities and anxiety that no amount of parental reassurance could overcome. An unashamed ‘Daddy’s girl’ as a child, in her teenage years she’d struggled to deal with the truth behind her father’s youthful looks. It cast a long shadow over their relationship; made all the more difficult because she’d flatly refused to discuss it with him. Scarlet was hurt and confused at her hostility, but had accepted his wife’s admonitions to leave teenage hormones alone. In any case, he’d been secretly glad to avoid any awkward confrontations and was especially grateful to sidestep the many questions he might not have an answer to.
Susannah idolised her mother and even in her most difficult years, they'd rarely fought; although Karen guessed that was probably down to massive forbearance on Dianne’s part. Their relationship was close and deep, fuelled in part by Dianne’s requirement to often be both mother and father to her children and by Susie’s longing for the approbation she could no longer find in her dad.
How she was coping with the death of her beloved mum, Karen couldn’t imagine. She was suddenly ashamed to realise that in the depths of her own grief, she’d paid little attention to that of those close to her. I should have done more, she thought. Di would expect it; she’d want me to be there for Susie. Only as usual, I’ve been too wrapped up in me.
Aloud, she said, “Paul, I know you have to be some place now, so let’s discuss this tonight, okay? A problem shared is a problem halved, as they say.”
His face cleared. “Thanks, Kaz. I actually would like to talk about it. You know how it is; sometimes I don’t see the wood for the trees. Maybe you need to point me in the right direction.”
By now they were back on 5th Avenue, pretty much where they’d started from. Scarlet looked at her questioningly. He said, “I’m heading north up to Madison. What about you?”
She inclined her head in the other direction. “South. Saks is calling to me. I’ll lose myself in there for a good couple of hours.”
He nodded. “Okay. Don’t get carried away; remember that only so many bags can fit in a taxi.” He dropped a swift kiss on her cheek. “See you later, sweetheart. Thanks for the afternoon.”
At precisely 6.57pm, Scarlet strode through the foyer of the Roosevelt Hotel. His mood was unexpectedly buoyant. The meeting with Major Cherry had been surprisingly relaxed, all things considered. He’d found himself looking at the man through Karen’s eyes and realised how right she was. Cherry was nothing but a buffoon, an awkward, pontificating barrel of hot air. Armed with that knowledge, Scarlet asserted his considerable authority and refused to be riled by the man’s thinly-veiled jibes. The atmosphere remained calm and their discussions were conducted in relative harmony.
The desk clerk looked up from his computer screen as Scarlet approached. “Can I help you, sir?”
“I’m having dinner with one of your guests, Mrs Svenson. Would you let her know I’m here, please?”
The young man smiled in immediate recognition. “Mr Metcalfe? Welcome to the Roosevelt, sir. Mrs Svenson’s waiting for you in our rooftop bar. It’s called Mad46. The elevator over there will take you straight up.”
“Thank you.” Scarlet rode the elevator to the 19th floor while perusing an advert explaining that the lounge was so named because of its location between Madison Avenue and 46th Street. He wondered what had made Karen decide that drinks outdoors were a good idea on what had turned into a decidedly chilly October evening.
Mad46 was an unexpected revelation, however. The lift doors opened onto a large indoor lounge. Unlike the rest of the rather traditional Roosevelt, Mad46 looked like a modern, very expensive night club with muted lighting and deep plush sofas. Soft jazz played quietly in the background as waiters glided round the room dispensing colourful cocktails.
Huge doors opened out onto a conifer and flower-decked rooftop terrace with comfortable canopied swing seats; daybeds, according to the elevator blurb. Twinkling fairy lights glowed against the illuminated backdrop of central Manhattan. Late-flowering roses in huge tubs lightly perfumed the air and the soft murmur of laughter and chinking glasses drowned out any residual noise from the traffic far below. The entire place was simply stunning.
Gazing through the open doors, Scarlet spotted Karen curled up on one of the canopied couches, shoes kicked off and legs tucked under her. She was dressed in a simple coral-coloured shift dress with elbow-length sleeves that didn’t promise much protection against the cool evening breeze. Champagne flute in hand, she stared into the distance, apparently lost in thought.
She was so still, so beautiful, so perfect, she could have been a painting. He caught his breath, wondering fleetingly what an artist would have made of the scene. Involuntarily, he stepped forward, a movement which galvanized the maître-d into immediate action.
“May I show you to a table, sir?”
Scarlet blinked, brought down to earth. “Umm, I’ve got one, thanks,” he explained, gesturing pointedly in Karen’s direction. “My friend is already here.”
The other man followed his gaze and nodded in recognition. “Very good, sir. I believe Mrs Svenson has already ordered drinks, but if there’s anything else you need, please let me know.”
She’s got this entire hotel at her beck and call, Scarlet thought with some amusement. “Fresh air this afternoon not enough for you?” he called out as he made his way out to the terrace.
Startled, she looked round and then gave him a warm smile. “There you are! Please come and sit for a while. We'll go inside when it gets too chilly. I just wanted to look at the view. I love New York at night.”
“It’s pretty spectacular,” he agreed, settling himself down beside her. The cushions were soft and pliable and he felt himself relax for the first time that day. He wanted to close his eyes and listen to the music and smell the aroma of the city. Her knees rested up against his legs and he was suddenly tempted to pull her feet onto his lap and massage her toes as he would have done with Dianne. The coasters on the table in front of them bore the words 'Hearts beat faster at high altitudes.' Christ, I’m losing it, he thought, in amused embarrassment.
“You look very nice,” he said, rousing himself. “I’ve always liked that dress. The colour suits you.”
She stared at him. “It’s new,” she said, a puzzled look on her face. “I just bought it this afternoon; Abigail Sellars’ new fall collection, previously displayed only on the catwalk.”
“Really? I could have sworn I’d seen it before.”
“On Dianne, perhaps? She and I often bought similar things.”
He shook his head with a grin. “Not in the same colours, though. She would never have worn that, not with her hair. And it is the colour I remember, I just don’t know........Oh.” He stopped in mid-sentence as realisation dawned, suffusing his cheeks with hot colour.
Karen threw him a curious glance. “Why are you looking at me like that?” she asked, expertly de-stoning a black olive.
“Like you’ve just walked in on me while I’m getting dressed. Come to think of it, you have actually done that before and you didn’t look half as embarrassed then as you do now.”
He gave a self-conscious laugh, aware that his expression was probably giving away more of his state of mind than he would have wished. “I was younger and brasher in those days,” he said. “Sorry, Kaz. I just realised what your dress reminded me of, that’s all.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Care to share?”
“Umm, no. Not really. I mean, it’s a bit...... well, it doesn’t matter. It was a long time ago, back in the days when not only was I young and brash, I was also quite stupid.”
Karen paused in the act of lifting a champagne bottle out of its ice bucket. “Now I’m intrigued,” she said crisply. “Not about the idea of you being young and stupid because we’ve all been there, but at the fact that all these years later, a memory apparently triggered by a dress I’m wearing, is still too embarrassing to talk about.”
She poured a generous amount of Veuve Cliquot into his empty glass and handed it to him before refilling her own. “I haf ways of making you talk, Meester Bond,” she dead-panned. “Maybe this’ll loosen your tongue. Cheers.”
Scarlet accepted the glass and clinked it against her own before saying, “Champagne? Pushing the boat out, aren’t you? Or is it just what rich widows put on their cornflakes?”
Embarrassed by her probing, he’d only said it by way of deflection, meant it jokingly and hadn’t registered the cruelty till the words were out. He saw her flinch and draw back from him. “I wouldn’t know,” she said coolly. “I’m just a farm girl from Iowa. I still prefer milk on mine.”
Scarlet felt the heat of shame creep through his body, mingled with the bewilderment that seemed to accompany everything he said and did these days. He couldn’t understand the need to hit out at everyone and everything that mattered to him. It was as if someone else had taken control of his actions and his tongue.
He reached out and took her glass from her, setting it firmly on the table. Then he pulled her unresisting body against him. “Sorry,” he mumbled into her hair. “I don’t know why I say these things. Please forgive me; you’re the last person in the world I want to hurt.”
She was still and passive against his shoulder for a long while. Then she said quietly, “It’s okay. Despite everything, I guess we’re still rolling with the punches, even when we think we can’t anymore.” She raised her head and straightened up. “We’re survivors, Paul, albeit reluctant ones. That seems to be what fate has lined up for us, but survival doesn’t come with a manual. We may be stumbling around in the dark, but we’re doing the best we can. Nobody’s perfect.”
“No. But still...” Scarlet shifted restlessly, reaching for the bowl of nuts offered by a passing waiter. “Kaz, you’re the only person who knows; the only one who truly comprehends. If I don’t have you, who can I....... then I open my mouth a foot too wide and risk ruining it all.”
She shook her head. “There’s nothing you can do or say that will ruin our friendship, Paul. We’ve been through too much together to ever let that happen.” She paused, staring blankly at the olive stick in her hand, as if she couldn’t quite remember how it got there. Laying it carefully down beside her glass, she continued, “You know, in the first few weeks after I knew that Adam was really and truly, finally gone, I couldn’t stop crying. I wept so much that my eyes closed up and I quite literally couldn’t see. There were days when I considered it a major accomplishment if I didn’t walk into the walls. Everything hurt; it was like having the worst kind of ‘flu. I wondered if there would ever be anything in my life again beyond weeping. Then I asked myself what kind of selfish, horrible, unloving wife that made me.”
“Karen, you could never be any of those things.”
“Yes, I could,” she replied, with a rueful smile. “There were times throughout my marriage to Adam when I was all of those things, as you well know. And I did wonder if grief was my punishment for that. Why was my life going on while his was snuffed out? What gave me the right to even imagine an existence beyond the sort of pain I was in?”
Scarlet nodded soberly. “I know. It doesn’t seem fair that we’re here, like this, enjoying being together, without them. But guilt won’t change anything, and time forces you on regardless.”
“Which is the reason for the champagne, I suppose. You know I’ve always been more of a beer and pretzels kind of girl, Paul. Adam was the one who understood good food and wine. He didn’t think it extravagant and he certainly didn’t need a special occasion to crack open a bottle of Bolly. So I guess I ordered this because I see it as a libation. I think they’d both approve.”
“They would,” Scarlet acknowledged. “Sounds like something worth toasting, I think.” He chinked his glass against hers. “To absent friends; and survival.”
“And to us,” she replied softly. “Here’s to what remains.”
The suite Karen had booked was so large it looked as if it occupied an entire floor of the building. “I can’t believe it has a full-size dining room – or that they seem to think they’re feeding the five thousand,” Scarlet muttered, gazing in stupefaction at the troupe of waiters bringing in laden dishes. He turned to his companion who was also watching the unfolding scene in embarrassed silence. “Come on, Karen. Even you must see that this is a bit over the top for just the two of us. Or are these people going to be hovering over us all night?”
She cast him a guilty glance then turned decisively towards the maître-d. “We can serve ourselves, you don’t need to hang around,” she told him quickly.
The young man hesitated, torn between his duty to this particularly demanding patron and his duty to the hotel’s other guests. “If you’re sure, ma’am...” he began doubtfully, not wanting to risk incurring a belated complaint. In his experience it didn’t do to underestimate the capriciousness of middle-aged, indecently rich Americans.
“Quite sure,” Karen replied confidently. She laid a reassuring hand on his arm. “Thank you for looking after us so well. I’ll certainly mention it to the manager.”
“That’s very kind of you, ma’am.” Mollified, the maître-d beckoned to his staff to remove themselves, wondering at the same time just how much the redoubtable Mrs Svenson was paying for the services of the handsome, dark-haired man who looked young enough to be her son, but who clearly wasn’t. True, he didn’t seem the escort type, but you couldn’t always tell. Maybe he was an out-of-work Broadway actor she’d taken up with. It wasn’t a bad way to get your rent paid and re-establish your name in the tabloids. Besides, La Svenson was pretty good looking for an old bird. No tits to speak of, but those legs.....sexy as hell. As he backed out of the room, the maître-d felt a faint twinge of envy for the man who obviously couldn’t wait to be alone with her.
Scarlet was surveying the room with a mixture of suspicion and puzzlement. “There’s something missing,” he said, with an exaggerated scratch of his head. “They’ve forgotten to bring us the loud hailer.”
Startled, Karen said, “What?”
“This table is the size of a bloody football pitch. If I’m at one end and you’re at the other, we’ll need a couple of megaphones to talk to each other. I’ll have lost my voice by the time we get to dessert.”
Her mouth twitched. “You’re exaggerating,” she muttered. “It’s not a football pitch. Tennis court, maybe.”
“At least as big as Wembley,” he insisted solemnly, with an emphatic shake of the head. “Possibly even Shea Stadium.”
“No! Not Shea!” she exclaimed in mock horror, feeling giggles rise up unbidden. Softened by champagne, they had only to catch each other’s eye before both dissolved into peals of laughter at the silliness of the situation.
“Oh, God, Paul, I’m sorry,” she gasped eventually, wiping tears of mirth from her eyes as they struggled to control their mutual hysteria. “I’ve never stayed here before, I had no idea it was so large. It is a bit ridiculous, isn’t it?”
“Just a tad,” he agreed, trying to catch his breath. “Look, how about we decamp to the coffee table in the living room? We’ll manage perfectly well in there and at least we won’t have to yell at each other.”
“Sounds like a plan,” she replied, still trying to stifle her giggles. “You get the wine and I’ll bring our salads.”
Clutching plates, glasses and wine bucket, they made their way back to the suite’s living area, a softly-lit expanse of lush carpets, deep sofas and a wide mahogany coffee table. Settling themselves against comfortable dark-blue silk cushions, they relaxed in companionable silence, balancing their plates on their knees while picking at a Waldorf salad and sipping ice-cold Chablis.
“This is good,” Scarlet observed, as they tucked into their main course, an Alaskan poached cod.
“The Roosevelt has a new chef, apparently,” Karen said between bites of gnocchi. “He’s world-famous, although I can’t remember his name.”
“Well, yes, the food is great, but what I meant was.....” Scarlet put down his fork and turned to face her. “It’s just good to be here, Kaz, being a bit silly, having a giggle. I can’t remember the last time I laughed like that.”
“No, me neither,” she replied soberly. A look of sadness crossed her face. “The four of us used to have such fun together, didn't we? I really miss that.” Before the ever ready tears got a chance to form, she picked up her wine glass, drained it and held it out to him. “Refill, please.”
She watched as he obediently poured out the last of the Chablis. “This is a really good vintage,” she said. “Shall we have another?”
His hand paused in the act of replacing the empty bottle in the ice bucket. “Are you sure?” he asked doubtfully. “We’ve already had a bottle of champagne before we even started on this.”
“Oh hell, yeah. Why not?” Yawning, she stretched back on the sofa and kicked off her stilettos. “Let’s get drunk together. It’s ages since we’ve done that. Not that you really get drunk, of course, but you can always pretend.”
Scarlet grinned. “Actually, I do get drunk; it’s just that I can’t stay that way for longer than....oh, maybe ten minutes. More’s the pity. When I finally got my head round the fact that Dianne was gone for good, I tried to drown myself in whisky. No idea why, really. I knew it was never going to have the desired outcome. I’m not going to die of liver failure or even alcohol poisoning for that matter. It was just a waste of good liquor.”
“Look on the bright side – you can enjoy the taste without any of the side effects.”
He shook his head. “At the time I didn’t care about the taste; I just wanted to kill myself. I wanted to be able to do what most people on the planet have the right and ability to do. In the end, all I got was a massive bar bill and a reminder of why I’m still here when Dianne isn’t.”
Karen shot him a sharp glance. His face was bleak and she knew he’d suddenly retreated into his own private darkness, a place he didn’t think she could follow. How to bring him back? She wasn’t sure.
“Let’s see if there’s another bottle of Chablis in the fridge, shall we? Saves calling Room Service,” she said briskly, uncurling herself from the sofa. “Why don’t you clear these plates away and then we’ll have dessert.”
“Okay.” He roused himself and stood up with a yawn. “It’s a good job I won’t be the one flying the SPJ tonight. I’d probably fall asleep at the controls, even if I’m not technically under the influence.”
Head buried in the cool box, she exhaled in relief. He was back, dealing with the mundane. “What will you do?” she said over her shoulder. “Is there a scheduled pick-up?”
“Probably, usually is on a Tuesday night. It’ll be Cherry’s mob, rowdy as always.”
“They’ll keep you awake, then.”
“More than likely. But hey, I meant to ask earlier; how’s Ace doing? You probably see more of him than I do. Every time I call him, he’s always racing out the door and he rarely gets back to me.”
“That’s just because you’re his dad. I doubt that you treated your parents with much consideration when you were his age.” Karen padded back to the sofa on stockinged feet, wine in hand. She gave him the bottle to open before collapsing alongside him, feet tucked under her. “I understand he’s doing very well at SvenCorp,” she continued, glad of the opportunity to steer the conversation onto a more positive track. “He’s working with Katherine and David and they both speak highly of him. I haven’t really seen much of him, other than when he’s visited with Freya.”
She gave Scarlet a rueful smile. “To be honest, while I’m always delighted to see her and I’m grateful for the help she’s giving me, I suspect her reasons for coming to Boston so regularly have much more to with Ace than with me.”
“They do seem smitten,” he observed, pouring out more wine. “Although it may not last – they’re very young, after all. Still, I’m glad they’ve had each other to lean on over the last few months. Romance has taken the edge off grief, I suspect. Certainly, Ace seems to be coping with his mother’s death far better than Susannah is.”
“Ah.” Karen paused in the act of picking up her glass. “Is this what you were alluding to this afternoon in the park? Problems with Susie?” When he nodded, she placed her free hand over his and said carefully, “Don’t expect too much, Paul. She’s only twenty and she’s lost the most important person in her life. These things take time, as we both well know.”
“Yes, but...I can’t help feeling guilty, Kaz,” he replied with a frown. “Maybe I haven't been as supportive as I should be. She’s spending far too much time alone and it’s not helping her.”
Karen’s brows knitted together. “I thought that once you went back to Cloudbase she was going to stay with Dianne’s mom for a while?”
“That was the plan. Her grandmother and I agreed it wasn’t a good idea for her to be left alone at home. But after a couple of weeks, Susie decided to go back to her flat in Oxford; said she’d had enough of Granny fussing over her like she was a five-year old. In a way, I was pleased. I was glad she seemed to want to get back into college life. She graduates next year, so I don’t want her wasting too much time. I saw it as a positive step.”
Karen nodded. “The last time I spoke to her she said she was trying to pick up where she’d left off.”
“Yes, that’s what she told me, too.” Scarlet’s voice turned grim. “But then I got a call from her tutor who explained she hadn’t shown up for any lectures at all this term and he wondered if I could tell him why. Not only that, she hasn’t handed in a single completed assignment, which doesn’t bode well for her degree prospects.”
“Oh, Paul.” Karen looked dismayed. “What did you do?”
“Confronted her. She tried to deny it all; said the chap was exaggerating, she’d only missed a few things, they weren’t that important, etc, etc. I didn’t believe her, so I spoke to her flatmates who finally confessed that she’d been spending most of her days holed up in her bed watching reality TV shows. They're both really worried about her, but they hadn't been able to decide whether or not they should clue me in.”
“Oh, Lord. How did you handle it?”
“Not very well, I suspect. I read her the riot act. Told her it was time she grew up and pulled herself together.”
Karen bit her lip. “Oh, dear. That wasn’t very helpful, Paul.”
He shot her a rueful glance. “It gets worse, I’m afraid. I think I also said Dianne would have been so disappointed in her and flunking out of uni was not the way to honour her mother’s memory.”
Karen gazed at him in disbelief. “Oh, sweet Jesus,” she murmured. “That poor kid. How could you, Paul?”
“What was I supposed to do?” he protested. “We invested a lot in both of the kids’ education because we believed they should have the best opportunities we could give them. I don’t want her wasting it, throwing away her future.”
She said nothing, just gazed back at him resolutely until eventually, he squirmed and lowered his eyes.”Okay,” he said reluctantly. “You're right; it was pretty unforgivable, I guess. And unfair, because the only person who was disappointed in her was me. Di never would have been. The reality is that I just couldn’t cope with Susie's histrionics. I was barely managing to get through each day as it was.”
Karen stayed silent, trying to make sense of this appalling situation. Scarlet loved his daughter deeply, but he’d never understood her. They’d always managed to rub each other up the wrong way because, in essence, they were too much alike. Even so, she could barely credit just how badly he had misjudged the depth of Susannah’s grief and how it might best have been handled.
“What happened after that?” she asked quietly.
“She refused to speak to me for a while, but I gather she did at least make an effort to do some work, so I hoped things were getting back on track. A few weeks ago, I told her I was coming home for the weekend and that I would like to see her. I was prepared to go to Oxford, but she wanted to drive down to Owslebury instead. She actually seemed quite upbeat; said she might take the opportunity to go through Di’s wardrobe and sort out what she could. I thought that was a major step forward. Up till then, she’d refused to allow anyone to touch any of her mother’s stuff. I hadn’t pushed it because I couldn’t face it myself.”
“I did offer,” Karen reminded him gently.
“I know you did and I’m grateful,” he said with a squeeze of her shoulder. “Anyway, I managed to get away from Cloudbase earlier than I expected, which meant I got to Owslebury late Friday evening. Susie wasn’t expecting me until Saturday, although I doubt it would have made a difference to how things turned out.”
Karen felt her heart sink. She waited. Eventually, Scarlet said heavily, “I could hear the music from half a mile away; I just didn’t know where it was coming from until I got nearer. The house was lit up like Blackpool Illuminations. As I drove up the path, things that looked like large bats were zooming past the car, racing around like huge mad insects. For a second, I was so confused I thought I’d got the wrong house. It was like a scene from a really bad horror film. But then I saw Susie, standing on the steps at the front door. She was dressed in some kind of laced up Basque-type thing, which one of the insect people was trying to undo. She looked like a cheap version of Bride of Frankenstein.”
“God. What did you do?”
“Stopped the car, got out, and tried to say, ‘What the hell is going on here?’ Before I had a chance, Susie staggered down the stairs, lurching toward me. ‘Everybody, meet my fucking wonderful, invincible, immortal father!’ she yelled. ‘The hero of our times! Come on, all of you, you’ve waited for this moment; queue up to meet Colonel Scarlet! The man who managed to get my mum killed!'
“Oh my God.” Karen’s hand flew to her mouth. “She was drunk?”
“Completely hammered,” he said flatly. “Not only that, she was as high as a kite on something or other. Whatever it was, I’ve no doubt it was illegal. One of the hangers-on – bat people – managed to grab her before she literally fell at my feet. Before I got my wits together, he’d managed to hustle her back into the house. Not before I saw the look in her eyes, though. Pure venom. That was the moment I knew she’d done it deliberately; staged a very elaborate tableau designed to display exactly how much contempt she has for me.”
“She blames you for Dianne’s death?” Karen’s voice was a whisper. “That’s crazy, Paul. How can she think that?”
“Because she was there and she knows it’s true. I couldn’t have done anything to prevent it – I was out cold. Di threw herself across me to prevent me being hit by the Mysteron gun. She took the full force of the blast and Susannah saw it all. She hates me and I don’t blame her, because it’s not nearly as much as I hate myself. If I could do anything to turn the clock back, I would.”
“We'd all do anything to change the outcome of that day, Paul.” Karen leaned against him, shivering under the weight of memory. “I don’t remember the details, I admit. I was so wrapped up in Adam, I didn’t really clock what was going on with anyone else. Until the very end, I mean.”
He put his arms around her. “It was the end of everything for us both, Kaz.”
“What did you do about Susie?” Karen asked eventually, breaking the long silence.
“Do?” Scarlet measured his words. “Well, at the time, there didn’t seem much I could do. There was no point wading into the middle of it because I sensed that was exactly what Susie wanted. I should've called the police, but I didn’t want my daughter spending the night in a cell. I just wanted to retreat, to be honest. So I did the cowardly thing – I drove back into Winchester and spent the night in a hotel. Then, first thing, I flew back to Cloudbase.”
“Without calling her?” Karen was astounded.
“To say what, exactly?” Scarlet spread his hands in resignation. “Kaz, I was still so angry I don’t think I was even capable of speech. Besides, I had no idea what she’d taken – she might have been wasted for days. Rational conversation would probably have been pointless.”
“Then that was all the more reason for you to have checked on her!” she replied, exasperated. “Paul, anything could have happened. She’s not you, remember? For her, mixing drugs and alcohol could have been lethal. She might have overdosed, or choked, or....”
“Or I could have put my hands round her neck and strangled her,” Scarlet retorted angrily. “Believe me, I was so mad I didn’t trust myself not to do exactly that. Every time I thought about the whole scene; the way they were all dressed, behaving like depraved idiots, rampaging through my home, I wanted to murder the bloody lot of them. I still do.”
Karen sat back on the sofa, staring unseeingly at the wine bottle on the table in front of them. She had a sudden vision of the scene at Hollybank House through Scarlet's eyes, but also saw it for what it was in reality. Just a stupid early Halloween party, she thought. “Youngsters misbehaving; God knows we've all been there, but he can't see that right now. He has no perspective on anything.
“Kids do stupid things, Paul,” she said carefully. “We’ve all been down that road; drank too much, maybe dabbled in illicit substances, found ourselves in situations that were a little out of control. Susie was home alone and decided to take advantage of that by throwing a vampire party and inviting over a bunch of dodgy friends. Not the smartest move to make, perhaps, but not the end of the world, either.”
Scarlet shook his head. “She was setting me up,” he retorted stubbornly. “I know she was.”
“Come on, Paul, how could she have been?” Karen reasoned. “You said yourself that she wasn’t expecting you till the following day. If you hadn’t told her you were arriving early, she had no reason to think you’d show up while the party was in full swing. She probably thought she’d have enough time to eject the hangers-on and clear up any mess before you got home.”
“Maybe, but it certainly didn’t seem like that at the time,” he acknowledged grudgingly. ”It felt like she was just out to embarrass and humiliate me to prove a point – whatever the point was.”
“Have you spoken to her since?”
“No.” His eyes registered the disapproval on her face and so he continued quickly, “Right now, I don't think I want to.” His voice shook a little. “I can’t forget the look in her eyes, Kaz; the reality is that my daughter despises me and I don’t think there’s anything I can do about it. And if I’m truly honest, I’m not sure I want to do anything about it. Susie’s right; if it wasn’t for me, her mother would still be alive. I’ve deprived her of the most important person in her life, the only parent who was always there for her, no matter what. It’s not surprising she hates me. I’ve caused my entire family nothing but grief and misery. Maybe they’re better off without me around.”
At that, Karen sat up, her eyes blazing. She jabbed a finger into his chest. “Now you listen to me,” she said firmly. “Your daughter does not hate you. She never has and she never will. Right now, she’s confused and bewildered and hurting very badly. She’s hitting out at you because she doesn’t know what else to do. Turning your back on her because you want to crawl back to your own dark cave is the last thing she needs. As for the idea that all this would be different if it weren’t for you – well, that’s just damned ridiculous.”
“Is it?” Scarlet’s eyes, bleak with misery, searched hers. “I keep asking myself why Di did it, you see. Why she threw herself across me like that. Did she deliberately sacrifice herself or was it just something instinctive, something she didn’t have time to think about?”
“I don’t know,” Karen responded softly. “I guess she thought she was protecting you.”
“Protecting who? Me or Colonel Scarlet?”
She looked puzzled. “What do you mean? It’s the same thing.”
“No, it’s not, Karen. The weapon that was being aimed at me was an electron gun. A machine that will kill Mysterons and so, ipso facto, me. Di knew that.”
“Well, of course she did,” she replied, an edge of impatience in her voice. “What are you trying to say?”
Scarlet removed his arm from around her shoulders and rubbed his eyes wearily. “I’ve never told anyone this,” he said at last. “I don’t know if Di ever did. I suspect not, but......A few years ago, we had a major row. Not just the usual domestic squabble, but a real humdinger. She threatened to leave me; that’s how serious it was.”
Karen’s face paled. “My God, I had no idea. What was it about?” She searched his face, her female instincts coming to the fore. “Had you been playing away?” she asked accusingly. “A younger woman and all that?”
“No.” he replied defensively, nevertheless colouring slightly. “At least.....well, that’s not what the row was about. Basically, we were going through a bit of a bad patch. My folks had passed away in fairly rapid succession, we were struggling with the upkeep of Longwood Abbey; the death duties and Inheritance Tax bills were crippling us and I couldn’t see a way out. The kids were at the rebellious stage and to cap it all, Di’s father became very ill. She had her hands full coping with it all on her own, because as always, I was firmly wrapped up in Spectrum.”
He paused, taking a slug of wine before continuing. “It’s what she’d always done and she’d never really complained, but I could see it was taking its toll on her. On top of what was going on at home, Cloudbase had suffered a series of setbacks. We’d lost several senior officers in a major petro-chemical explosion in Kuwait, including my partner at the time, Captain Emerald. That was...” He paused in sombre reflection. “That was pretty damned rough. Johnny was a great kid, right on top of his game. Had his whole life in front of him; he was just about to marry one of the Angels. We were a good fit as partners, despite the age difference; almost as good as Adam and me.” He turned his head towards her with a smile. “He’d asked me to be his best man, too. Maybe that’s why his death hit me so hard.”
“I remember that happening,” she replied quietly. “Adam told me you were very badly hurt, too.”
“Burned,” he said flatly. “Very badly burned; fried to a crisp, in fact. I’m not sure how I survived, but I do know that I didn’t want to.”
Karen’s face twisted in sympathy. She picked up his hand and squeezed his fingers. “You hate fire. It’s always been the worst thing for you,” she whispered. “It’s not surprising you felt like that.”
He nodded. “Maybe. But what is surprising is that I didn’t really get over feeling like that. I got better physically, but not mentally. I just felt like I’d had enough – more than enough. I’d spent over twenty-five years giving my life – quite literally- over and over again to Spectrum and the future of Earth. At that point, I didn’t much care that we hadn’t vanquished the Mysteron threat. I just wanted to go home and leave it all to someone else. Potter around in the garden, play cricket, help my kids with their homework, watch television with my wife. Things everyone else my age takes for granted.”
Karen drew in a breath of incredulity. “You were going to resign?”
“Yes,” he said simply. “I thought Dianne would be pleased; a normal relationship at last and some help around the house. But she wasn’t. She went apeshit, in fact.”
“She didn’t want you at home? That’s hard to believe.”
He shook his head. “It wasn’t so much that – it was just she felt I was giving up and that made her furious. Her view was that she’d married not just Paul Metcalfe, but the indestructible Captain Scarlet, too. She’d put up with all the inherent problems that came with that because she believed that we had a duty as a family to respect the responsibilities that came with my “uniqueness”, so to speak. She made it very clear to me that I wasn’t the only one who was making massive sacrifices to the cause of world peace. To her, if I just gave up and turned my back on Spectrum before we’d managed to defeat the Mysterons, it would be as if all those sacrifices meant nothing.”
“But surely she understood how you felt?”
“To an extent she did. She realised I needed a complete break, as did the medics. I went home for a couple of months to convalesce and we had a lovely summer together as a family. Things only turned shitty when I made it plain I wasn’t going back to Cloudbase. Up till then, I think she’d believed it was just a question of resting my mind as well as my body and then everything would be hunky-dory. Back to normal. She didn’t get the fact that I didn't want that kind of normal anymore.”
“Oh, honey.” Karen's face registered her distress at his words. These were revelations she hadn't dreamed of; certainly Dianne, normally so open, had not even hinted at the pressures she and her husband were under. She wondered if Adam had ever suspected just how tormented his friend had become.
“The whole bedrock of our marriage shifted,” he continued. “It was as if I’d become someone she no longer knew. She seemed to think I’d reneged on a bargain I didn’t even know I’d made. I began to wonder who she’d really married; me, or the indestructible hero. Anyway, after a week of fighting, during which many tears were shed – by both of us – I gave in and agreed not to resign. To ‘keep on keeping on’, as they say. I did what she wanted because for me, the only thing worse than being indestructible was the idea of a life without her and the kids. So I went back to Cloudbase, got on with my job and we never talked about it again.”
Karen was silent for a moment, mentally reviewing the history of her friends' marriage. “Paul, she loved you,” she said finally. She loved you, not what you do, not what you stand for, not the mythology... just you, plain and simple.”
He nodded. “I know. Well, I mean, that’s what I’d always thought. And when... when she was dying..... she said all the things I needed to hear. All the right things. All those beautiful words of love that will be scored on my heart forever. And I believed her. I wanted to believe her because I couldn’t accept I was losing her and I thought if we just kept talking....if I could just keep her with me.... it might be all right.”
“Oh, sweetheart.” Karen’s whisper broke on a flow of ready tears.
“Then she apologised for letting me down. I didn’t understand why, but at that point I didn’t really know what had happened; I just thought she’d somehow got caught up in the crossfire. It was only later that I found out what she’d done – and why she wanted my forgiveness.”
“For saving your life?”
“For saving the life of Colonel Scarlet. The thing is, she knew, Karen; back in that golden summer she knew I’d had enough of retrometabolism, whether or not she wanted to acknowledge it. So finally, after all the rows had died down, we made a bargain with each other. I promised her that as long as we stayed married, I'd go back to Cloudbase and carry on as before. But I made her promise me that if the time came when I couldn't stand it anymore, she would accept my decision to finally end it. If I found myself up close and personal with the barrel of a Mysteron gun once more, I might just bow to the inevitable. Welcome it, in fact; the end of my personal hell. I quite liked the idea that this was possibly the one choice fate might allow me.”
Appalled, Karen sat motionless. In typical British military tradition, Scarlet had always dealt with his uniqueness by employing a 'stiff upper lip' attitude. He rarely opened up about his deepest feelings, even to those closest to him. The fact that he was doing so now was an indicator of how much he had lost control over his emotions. She wondered if, over the years, the Cloudbase medical teams should have paid more attention to his state of mind. But then, he had never been one to willingly submit to endless psychological evaluations.
“Paul, how could you possibly have expected Dianne to agree to a bargain like that?” she asked, when he seemed unwilling to continue speaking. “That was a dreadful thing to ask of anyone, let alone your wife.”
He shrugged.”You're probably right; and in the end she didn't accept it, did she? She sacrificed herself so that Spectrum’s indestructible weapon could live to fight a million other days. And that was her choice, not mine. But by doing what she did, she deprived me of hope; the possibility of finally ending my life in the only manner that seemed open to me. I can’t do that now. I have to go on into an endless future, because if I don’t, what she did becomes meaningless. I owe it to her to make sure she didn’t die in vain, no matter how intolerable my situation may become to me.”
Karen had begun to cry in earnest now, her sobs mingling with intermittent hiccups. She was trying to speak, but her attempts only seemed to end in strangled gasps for air. Scarlet looked at her in sudden concern. “Kaz, are you okay? I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to.....”
“You stupid, selfish bastard!” she yelled suddenly, turning to thump her fists into his chest with ferocity. “Of course she was trying to save you! She was trying to keep her husband alive in the same way I was trying to keep mine. Why? Because she loved you. She loved you! It was never going to be about bargains or choices; in the end, she did the only thing she could, the only thing she would ever have done. She tried to save you because your life mattered to her more than her own; your life, you fucking, blinkered idiot! Not Colonel Scarlet’s. Not Spectrum’s invincible martyr. Just you; her husband, the father of her children, the person she’d been to hell and back with for thirty years. And how do I know this? Because she was my best friend and I know she loved you as much as I loved Adam.”
There was silence as she dropped her hands and turned away from him, struggling to contain both her tears and her anger.
Scarlet stared straight ahead of him for a long moment before raising his wine glass to his mouth and draining it. He knew Karen's propensity for wild bursts of temper, had seen Adam deal with them far too many times to be surprised by her vehemence. He had rarely been the focus of it, though. As her words played again through his mind, he began to question her right to despise his regrets at Dianne's actions.
“'She was trying to keep her husband alive in the same way I was trying to keep mine' – that's what you said, isn't it? So how do you square that, Karen? How do you resolve your determination to save Adam with the fact that he didn't want you to? You knew he was almost certainly going to become the thing he feared the most. You had the means to put an end to his torment and yet you refused because you wanted to keep him with you.” Scarlet's voice was very soft. “So who's the selfish one here, Karen? Me or you?”
“That’s not fair,” she replied fiercely. “When Adam died the first time – or we thought he had – it damn near killed me. I couldn’t bear the thought that I hadn’t been with him, that I hadn’t been able to prevent it. And I was afraid of living without him. Like you, I was angry. I wanted to kill him for dying and leaving me alone, stupid as that sounds; as selfish as it sounds. So, when it looked to me as if there was a faint possibility he could come back, I did everything I could think of. I wanted to will something into him, give him every bit of life I had in me, force him to live, if I could. Eventually, I realised it wouldn’t work. He was going to die all over again and there was nothing I could do about it. But I was damned if I was going to be the one to send him on his way with another blast from that bloody machine, no matter how much he wanted it. It was too much to ask.”
She peeled her dripping fingers away from reddened eyes and mascara-smeared cheeks. “You always asked too much of us, you and Adam. Neither of you ever understood that.”
Scarlet looked for clean tissues in his pocket. Finding none, he resorted to using the table napkins to gently wipe away the tears on her face and hands. Then he enfolded her in his arms again, just as he’d done on that bleak afternoon in May when they’d witnessed the final destruction of their loved ones.
“It wasn’t asking too much, Kaz,” he murmured against her hair. “You didn’t need to pull the trigger. You just had to be there. And you were; you didn’t let him down. You were with him at the very end and he knew how hard that would be for you. We all just did what we had to. There was no choice.”
Karen raised a hand to his face, slowly letting her fingertips trace the contours of his cheekbones. “We got the chance to say goodbye to them, Paul. That’s something to hold on to at least.”
Their eyes met in silent understanding. As the tension gradually ebbed away, Karen gave a loud sniff. “Ring Room Service, we need more wine,” she muttered. “I'm not nearly drunk enough for this sort of conversation.”
He smiled. “I'm not drunk at all,” he confessed. “It's worn off already.” She made a face at him and he laughed at her expression. “Go and fix your face before you're blinded by running mascara,” he instructed. “I'll sort out the wine.”
The maître 'd was both surprised and disappointed to find Scarlet and Karen fully clothed when he arrived at the door of the suite bearing another two bottles of white wine. He decided he had lost his bet with the kitchen staff that the handsome Englishman would have gotten his leg over before the first course was eaten. He cleared plates away and disposed of the empty bottles, accepting Scarlet's generous tip with a sympathetic look. At her age, it probably took time and effort, not to mention alcohol, to get Mrs Svenson's erotic juices flowing; the poor guy was no doubt having to work hard for his money. Scarlet kept his expression studiously bland, giving no indication that he knew exactly what was going through the other man's mind.
Karen had repaired her make-up and combed her hair by the time he'd filled their glasses and had settled himself back on the sofa. She came to sit beside him, curling her legs under her. “Getting back to Susie,” she said, sipping her Chablis with appreciation. “She needs help, Paul. You can't just ignore this and hope it will all come right. If you're not careful, you could lose her, too.”
He turned stricken eyes on her. “My God, Kaz. You think she might be suicidal?”
“That's not what I meant,” she said hastily. “Although I wouldn't discount it as a possibility. I just meant you may never heal the breach in your relationship if you don't deal with this. Maybe you ought to suggest some professional help; a bereavement counsellor, perhaps.”
“I doubt she'd be receptive to that – especially if the suggestion came from me.
“All right; let it come from me, then,” she replied calmly. “I'll talk to her, see what I can do. I won't mention that you and I have talked, of course. I need to fly over to the UK shortly anyway, to sort out some stuff with the estate agents. I'll give her a call, suggest lunch and a bit of retail therapy and take it from there.”
“Thanks, Karen. I'd really appreciate that. She thinks the world of you, you know – as she did of Adam.”
“Yes.” She turned sober eyes to him. “Adam was a big part of her life, growing up; more so than I ever was. She'll be grieving for him, too, don't forget.”
“He was a more hands-on father to my kids than I ever was,” Scarlet replied flatly. “I've often wondered how he found the time I never seemed able to spare. It's not as if our workloads were any different, yet Adam was a good dad to Freya, as well as spending time with my two.”
“Spending money as well, don't forget,” she replied dryly. “Don't kid yourself; I'm not the only Svenson with a serious shopping habit. Adz liked to indulge people where he could and his daughter and godchildren were top of that list. Kids are impressionable and in my experience, easily bought; when they're very young, anyway. They gravitate towards the people who buy the best presents.”
“I'm surprised at you, Mrs Svenson,” Scarlet said, raising his eyebrows. “What an unusually cynical viewpoint.”
“Realistic, I would say,” she retorted. “Don't beat yourself up, Paul. Adam understood the role he played in Ace and Susannah's lives. He genuinely loved them, but it was more than that. He wanted to be a support to them when sometimes you couldn't be; when you were injured, perhaps, or simply incommunicado. He knew how much you wanted to protect them from the realities of what you are and he saw it as his job to step in when you couldn't.”
“Christ. You make it sound as if Adam and I were the married couple,” he said sarcastically. “Sharing family responsibilities and all that.”
“Oh, believe me, there were times when it felt like that,” she responded. “Dianne used to say you spent far more time with Adam than you ever did with her. She used to get cross, sometimes.”
“Did she? She never said,” Scarlet replied, knowing in a flash that it wasn't true. He recalled the time, during a romantic weekend away, when she had locked him out of their bedroom because she'd been angry and resentful that yet again, he was putting his partner's needs before hers. Then there was the occasion when his wife had thrown a whole cupboard-full of crockery at him after he'd informed her that he couldn't stay for Christmas lunch because Adam needed his input on some crisis or other. The seriousness of that situation had only hit home with the belated realisation that she'd destroyed a goodly proportion of the Simms family heritage.
“Well... maybe there were times....” he concluded weakly.
Karen laughed. “Di was pretty easy-going, for the most part; unlike me. I certainly gave Adam a hard time if I thought I was being neglected. God knows why he put up with me – I used to be such a diva.”
“Used to be?” Scarlet echoed, with a grin. “When did that get to be past tense?”
“I've mellowed,” she retorted, poking him in the ribs with a well-manicured finger. “Call it a belated ascent into maturity, if you like. There's nothing like a bit of death to put life in perspective, I find.”
“Oh, Karen.” Scarlet reached out and pulled her into his arms. She lay there, unresisting, his chin against her hair. “I wish we could turn the clock back; go back to the beginning and start all over again.”
“What would be the point? We wouldn't do anything differently, you know that.”
“Maybe. Maybe not. It just seemed so much easier back then.”
“We were younger,” she pointed out. “We had more optimism, I suppose. Sometimes that was all we had; that, and some kind of blind faith that it would all turn out okay in the end.”
“Mostly, it did,” he agreed. “We haven't done so badly; it's been thirty years and the Mysterons haven't wiped us out yet. We must have done some things right. But sometimes I can't help feeling that the price has been too high. We've lost so much, Kaz, all of us. We've sacrificed our families, our friends, our entire lives in some cases, in order to protect a largely indifferent world. And for what? Does anyone out there care about us? The politicians don't. The World Government couldn't give a stuff; well, the present incumbents certainly couldn't. Maybe in the past, they did. But we're the victims of our own success; we've done such a good job of looking after Earth that the powers-that-be have forgotten how much they owe us.”
Karen raised her head from his shoulder. “It's not like you to be bitter, Paul,” she said slowly. “We signed up for this life because we wanted to make a difference. We didn't do it because we expected medals or accolades.”
Scarlet heaved a deep sigh. “I know that. And you're right, of course. It's just that it seems to go on and on without end. Occasionally I have a nightmare where I'm three hundred and fifty years old; I'm the only person left on the planet and I'm still fighting Mysterons. The part of the dream that makes no sense to me is that I don't know what I'm fighting for if I'm the only one who's still alive.”
“Oh, sweetie.” Karen reached a hand out to his face in a gentle caress. He covered her fingers with his own and held them against his cheek for a long moment. Then he bent his head and brushed his lips against hers.
“Thank God for you, Karen,” he said quietly, his voice husky with emotion. “Thank God for you.”
Returning his kiss was natural and instinctive, but as she drew back from him, their eyes met and she saw within his deep blue depths an emotion that had not been there before. She knew from his sharp intake of breath that he had recognised the same emotion in her own eyes.
The air around them had become super-charged with expectancy; the expectancy of something unnamed and previously unthinkable; something which could not and would not be denied. Holding his gaze, Karen set down her wineglass on the coffee table and moved back into his arms, giving herself up to the inevitability of desire.
There was a moment, when they had moved to the bedroom and he was undressing her, when reason raised its head in sudden panic. “Paul, this is madness”, she gasped, trying in vain to prevent him unhooking her bra. “We can’t do this......it’s wrong....”
His tongue circled her nipple and she let out a small moan of pleasure. “I don’t care – and neither do you,” he muttered, as her hand slid between his legs. Her fingers were trembling so much she couldn’t manage buttons, so he undressed himself with one hand, holding her head still so he could continue to kiss her.
Once they were both naked, there was no pretence of grace or delicacy. They were both too inflamed for teasing or foreplay to be anything other than an irritating distraction. Karen wrapped herself around him, her legs straddling his hips. He tripped over his shoes, trying not to drop her as he stumbled towards the bed.
Once there, any last vestiges of self-control went out of the window. Scarlet couldn’t remember a time when he’d ever been possessed by such sheer animal lust. This was nothing like the sweet, gentle lovemaking he had so enjoyed with his wife. Karen Svenson was an acrobatic tigress and he found himself responding to her passionate intensity with a need that shocked him.
At last, when they’d finally ridden out the last waves, they collapsed in each other’s arms, two halves of a greater whole. They lay together, both trying to catch their breath, trying to work out if it was possible to move. Eventually, Scarlet found his voice. “Adam was right,” he panted. “This is definitely what you do best.”
Her eyes widened in shock. “You bastard,” she said. Then she turned her back on him, her shoulders beginning to shake with silent sobs.
He rested his cheek against the nape of her neck. “Kaz, I’m sorry,” he said softly. “I shouldn't have said that, but I did mean it as a compliment. Was this all too much for you? Was I too rough?”
She rolled over to face him. Tears were dripping from her chin onto her chest. Her mouth was swollen from all the kissing they’d done and her breath was coming in ragged gasps. She didn’t protest as he tenderly wiped her wet cheeks with his fingers, but the tears showed no signs of stopping.
He waited. Finally she managed a strange garbled whisper. “It wasn’t you. It was me. I wanted it. How could I...... I’ve never been so...”
She looked at him, a glimmer of fear in her eyes. “You could have done anything to me – anything – and I wouldn’t have stopped you. I’ve never been so out of control.”
“And that scares you, right?”
“Kaz, it was intense, I know. But I would never do anything to hurt you. Well, not deliberately anyhow,” he replied, suddenly recalling with guilt the moment he had slammed her head back against the bedpost. The only word he could remember her saying was more. “You do trust me, don’t you?”
“Of course I do. But we weren’t exactly behaving like rational people, were we? We were behaving like animals. How did we let that happen?”
“I‘m not sure,” he admitted. “Maybe we both went a bit crazy. All I know is that I’ve ever needed anyone the way I needed you tonight.”
“To do what? Scratch your sexual itch?”
“To save my life,” he said quietly. “Stop me from losing my mind. For months now, I’ve felt as if I were about to implode, be sucked into some kind of vast internal black hole. I needed you to pull me back from the edge.” He kissed the edge of her mouth, licking away the salt from her tears. “And you did.”
She looked at him for a long moment, her expression closed. Then she rolled away from him, picked up her wine glass and drained it. “God,” she muttered. “Where is nicotine when you need it? Alcohol is no good for post-coital analysis. Call room service and ask them to bring up some cigarettes.”
“You’re not allowed to smoke in here,” he replied, with a shake of the head. “Besides, you don’t – smoke, that is. You never have.”
“Maybe I should start. No, I definitely should start. Now that I don’t have to worry about Adam lecturing me on the state of my lungs or my looks, I can inhale carcinogens to my heart’s content. If I get addicted, so what? It’s cheaper than a shopping habit.”
Scarlet raised himself on one elbow and gazed at her with a puzzled frown. “What's wrong with you?” he asked.
She shrugged. “With me? Nothing. But tell me, Metcalfe, if all it takes to sort you out is a quick tumble between the sheets, why wait till now? I dare say Cloudbase has a whole string of adoring young lovelies who would be more than happy to spread their legs for the legendary Colonel Scarlet. You didn’t need to settle for a performance of The Merry Widow.”
Scarlet felt the all too familiar anger rise up in him once more. “Oh, go fuck yourself, Karen,” he retorted savagely, fighting back a sudden impulse to slap her. The remark was crude and out of character but he dimly recognised that verbal violence was infinitely preferable to physical.
“No need,” she replied tartly. “I think we can agree you’ve already done that.”
There was silence. Lost for words, Scarlet lay back down and stared out into the darkened room. He had no idea why the atmosphere had become so ugly. Karen could be mercurial, her moods changing like the weather, but unlike her husband who’d invariably got blown away by whatever metaphorical hurricane was approaching, Scarlet had always prided himself on being able to spot an incoming storm and head it off in another direction. He had the sinking feeling that by stepping into Adam Svenson’s shoes he’d suddenly lost that advantage.
“I don’t understand this, Karen,” he said at last. “Why are you so angry? You know that this wasn’t just some casual screw. I know that you know because you were right there with me and you wanted it as much as I did. Okay, maybe it happened because we both subconsciously needed some sexual healing, but it wasn’t planned or even thought about. It was just unexpected and wonderful and I have no regrets.”
“You don’t? Well, I do!” she shot back. “How can you be so insensitive? We’ve cheated on them, Paul; betrayed the two people who loved us the most. We’ve defiled their memories. They’d never forgive us for what we’ve done and I’ll never forgive myself.” She shrugged off his outstretched arm and reached over to switch on the light. Then she clambered out of bed, turning her back as she wrapped a silky robe around her. “I need to go to the bathroom,” she said shortly, refusing to look at him.
As she disappeared into the large en-suite, slamming the door shut behind her, Scarlet lay absolutely still, his arms behind his head. Now that sanity – and his wits – were slowly returning to him, he began to realise the enormity of the cataclysm they’d caused. The evening had been a revelation, but he began to wonder if he’d been telling the truth when he’d said he had no regrets about this unexpected twist in their friendship. He realised there had always been an invisible line between them, something he hadn’t really acknowledged until his wife and Karen’s husband had lost their lives. Now, stumbling through the darkness and confusion of sudden widowhood, they had crossed that line and turning back from it was no longer an option.
What happens next? He thought. Where do we go from here? He heard the toilet flush, but there was no other sound from the bathroom. However, ten minutes later, she had still not emerged, which he didn’t think was a particularly good sign. On the other hand, she hadn’t asked him to leave, so maybe it might be possible to repair what was left of the evening; assuming of course, that she wasn’t simply lingering in the en-suite in the hope that he would eventually get the message and go.
He decided that was a chance he would have to take. So he got out of bed and padded into the living room to retrieve the wine bottle and glasses. Carrying them back to the bedroom, he laid them carefully on the bedside table. Then he crossed to the bathroom and knocked on the door. “Karen?”
There was no response. He tried again. “Karen, we need to talk. Can I come in?” She didn’t reply. He’d assumed she’d locked the door but when he tried the handle, he found to his surprise that it opened easily.
She was standing motionless, her back to him, staring at her reflection in a large mirror. Her nose was red and shiny and black lines of mascara bisected her cheeks. The harsh fluorescent light above the vanity unit turned her pale face to alabaster but her eyes looked as if she’d suddenly developed an advanced case of conjunctivitis. Scarlet thought fleetingly that she resembled a badly made-up clown.
Without turning round she said accusingly, “Don’t you ever knock?”
“I did, twice.” He crossed the room in three strides and wrapped his arms around her, pulling her back against his chest. Surprisingly, she didn’t resist, merely placed her hands over his arms. He rested his chin on her hair and felt some of the tension leave her body.
“I look like a hag,” she said to his mirrored reflection. “A dead ringer for one of Macbeth’s witches.”
He smiled at her over her head. “That’s interesting”, he said. “I don’t believe I’ve ever gone to bed with a hag before. Still, I’ll be happy to stir your cauldron any time.”
She made a face at him. “Very funny; not. I’m a fifty-eight year-old menopausal, dried-up twig. Don’t pretend otherwise.”
Scarlet sighed and dropped his arms to his side. “Karen, could we have a little objectivity here? You may well be menopausal, but so what? You’re certainly thin enough to be described as a twig, if I wanted to be unkind, which I don’t. As for dried up, that’s rubbish; how can you be dried up when you cry so much? As far as I’m concerned, you’re simply a very beautiful woman who doesn’t eat or sleep as much as she should.”
She reached her hand up to snap off the light over the mirror. “All those years,” she said, “all those years I used to wonder why Di spent so much money on gym memberships and the latest beauty treatments. Now I know.”
Scarlet looked surprised. “She never did that,” he protested. “She was one of the least vain women I ever met. She'd rather have gone to a concert than treat herself to a spa-day.”
“That's all you know,” she replied scathingly. “Do you seriously think she managed to keep that amazing face and figure into her late fifties purely by wishful thinking? She was obsessed with her appearance, far more than I've ever been. And it was all because of you. She was convinced that if she couldn't still look like the girl you married, you'd swap her for a younger model.”
“That's ridiculous. I can't believe she would think I'd be that shallow.”
“Women are insecure about themselves, Paul, and it's because society has taught them that unless they're young and gorgeous, they'll always run the risk of being supplanted in man's... umm... affections,” she replied tartly.
Scarlet rubbed his eyes wearily, wondering how much truth there was in that statement. “Look,” he said at last, “I know how old you are and I know how old you look and none of it matters a damn. Desire is about what you feel, not what you see. I tried to tell Di that for years and I don't think she ever really understood. I can appreciate the freshness of youth as much as the next man, but all the nubile young bodies in the world wouldn't compensate for what I felt for her; or what I feel about you right now.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Which is what exactly? That you desire me? You desire the menopausal twig? Note that I left out the dried-up bit since that was the only part of my self-analysis you disagreed with.” He voice was dripping with sarcasm, but the ghost of a smile played around her mouth.
“I love you,” he replied simply, surprising himself at his honesty. “I always have. Apart from Dianne and the kids, you and Adam have been the most important people in the world to me. You’re my dear friend – sometimes I feel like you’re my only friend. How could I not love you?”
“Oh, Paul.” In the mirror, her face softened. She turned to face him and unexpectedly put her arms round his neck. “I love you too, of course I do. But this..... I never thought... never imagined....”
“I know. I didn’t, either. But Karen, we’ve done nothing wrong. We both know this would never have happened if Adam and Di were still alive. But we have to face facts; they’re not. They’re gone and they’re not coming back. This isn’t betraying them; in some ways, I think they’d be tickled pink if they knew. They’d want us to snatch whatever happiness we can and what better than to do that with each other?”
“Maybe. But...” she gazed round distractedly. “How did we get to this? To this? You, me, together, having..... I mean... oh God, it’s just too hard to handle.”
“You weren’t having any problems handling it earlier,” he said with a lascivious grin. “In fact,” he added, watching her gaze drop involuntarily to his groin, “you’re doing pretty well right now.”
Her cheeks coloured in sudden embarrassment and she took a quick step backwards. “God, Metcalfe,” she muttered. “Do you always wander around hotel bathrooms stark naked?”
“Depends on the company I’m keeping,” he replied breezily. “But now that you seem to have made my intentions.....um....obvious... how about accompanying me back to bed? We have wine to finish.”
He held out his hand and meekly she took it, allowing herself to be transported back to the luxury of Egyptian sheets and duck down comforter. Karen sipped her wine slowly, savouring both the taste and Scarlet’s obvious impatience. Finally she took pity on him, allowing the glass to be removed from her hand so that he could enfold her in an embrace.
“Just remember I’m exhausted, Metcalfe. Fifty-eight is no age to fuck all night,” she murmured in warning.
“Neither is sixty-three,” he countered with a grin. “So how about just making love instead? Slow as you like, don’t move if you don’t want to. If you fall asleep, I won’t take it personally.”
She smiled. “Honey, aren’t we too old for all this?”
His kiss was long and deeply satisfying. “No,” he said firmly. “Absolutely not.”
The Roosevelt Hotel, 11.30pm.
“Are you going home, now?” Karen asked, flipping her pillow onto the cool side. “It’s getting late.”
Scarlet opened one eye. “Is this your way of telling me that I’ve served my purpose?”
“No. It’s my way of telling you that you’re about to miss your shuttle.”
“Ah. Looks like I’m staying, then. Is that okay with you?”
“More than okay.” She flashed him an unexpectedly shy glance. “To be honest, I don’t want to part with you. But that’s just my irrational fear of abandonment creeping in the door, I guess. Don’t let it scare you.”
He kissed her, smoothing the hair out of her eyes. “It doesn’t. Be reassured; you will not be abandoned now or forever more. And I’m looking forward to waking up with you.”
A shadow crossed her face. “I ought to warn you. I’m not such a hot ticket in the morning. I’m at that age where I definitely look better in a soft evening glow. Adam used to say that when I woke up, I reminded him of Mr Magoo.”
“You know, that old 1950s cartoon character? Grumpy old man with a scrunched up face. Half-blind. Squinty eyes.”
“Oh, yeah, I think I remember; vaguely.” Scarlet paused. “Good Lord. Adam said that, did he? Brave man. It’s amazing he survived as long as he did.”
“Adam enjoyed living dangerously.”
“That he did. But Karen, there are worse things in life than looking like Mr Magoo.”
She threw him an agonized glance. “Not for a woman!”
“Well, okay, I take your point,” he conceded. “But it works both ways, you know; I doubt if you’ll be impressed with my five o’clock shadow tomorrow morning. Dianne couldn’t hack it; she’d refuse to come near me until I’d shaved. It was ridiculous. She’d kiss me if I had dog-breath but not if I had bristles. I tried growing a beard once, thinking it would free me from the tyranny of the razor. Back-fired badly; she hated that even more. As far as she was concerned, it signalled the end of our sex life. So the beard had to go.”
Karen laughed. “I remember that. It really got to her. She said it was like sleeping with Abraham Lincoln.”
“Yep. Guess good old Abe wasn’t much of a turn-on, especially in a bright red tunic.”
She shook her head. “You just didn’t suit it, Paul. It made you look much older.”
“Well, that was the whole point, in a way. I wanted to disguise the baby-faced dimple, try to kid myself that I looked the same age as everyone else. Stupid, I realise that now. But it hadn’t mattered so much when we were younger because there was nothing obvious in my appearance to set me apart.
“As time went on though, I could see everyone else slowly changing whereas I basically stayed the same. Even then, I was in denial for years. I told myself it was just genetic good fortune; my dad and grandfather both had smooth skin and a full head of hair up till the day they died. I congratulated myself on keeping in shape, telling myself how lucky I was to have no aches and pains. I refused to accept that my ability to come back from the dead was also keeping my body frozen in time. It wasn’t till we all got to our early fifties that the reality of being alien really hit home.”
Karen’s hand slipped below the sheets to grip his fingers tightly. “So what was your light bulb moment?” she asked, the pressure of her hand within his negating the casual flippancy of the question.
He took a deep breath. “Remember the night the four of us went to the ballet at Covent Garden? It must have been seven, maybe eight years ago.” As she nodded, he continued, “Dianne was sitting next to me, looking at the programme. She’d forgotten her glasses so she couldn’t read it properly. She said, ‘Lend me your specs’ in that absent-minded way people do when they’re not really thinking. Before I’d had a chance to open my mouth to tell her that I didn’t have any because, of course, I don’t need them, Adam leaned over and gave her his. Without even looking up, she took them from him and said, ‘Thanks, love.’
“It was like someone had suddenly doused me in icy water. I realised it hadn’t been a thoughtless request at all; she knew I didn’t have specs. She’d been talking to Adam, not me. That was when I knew I couldn’t kid myself any longer.”
Karen’s face twisted in distress. “Paul, there was never anything untoward going on between Adam and Dianne.”
“Oh, I know that. But the three of you were comfortable with each other; you were all familiar with the changes age brings; I wasn't part of it. Finally, I had to acknowledge the divisions that had built up between Dianne and me. We'd always vowed we would never let retrometabolism come between us, but in the end, it did. I loved her, she loved me, but it wasn’t enough. There were gulfs we couldn't bridge.”
Karen shook her head. “That’s true of most marriages, Paul; even those without your unique problems. How Adam and I didn’t kill each other is beyond me.” She paused, remembering their earlier conversation over his marital issues. “Tell me something,” she said, throwing him a speculative look. “Did you cheat on Dianne? Before this, I mean.”
Scarlet closed his eyes. Shaking her head at the frailty of men in general, she poked him in the ribs. “How many times, Metcalfe? Who were they?”
“Yes, you do. What were their names?”
“What were their goddamn names?”
“Karen. It’s none of your business.”
“Yes, it bloody well is,” she countered sharply. “You were married to my best friend. I was married to your best friend. Now look at us; in the sack together, professing undying love after we’ve shagged each other’s brains out. As if that’s not bad enough in the infidelity stakes, I now discover I have several predecessors; which might be fine if it wasn’t for the fact that I have no idea how much undying love you also promised them. So I reckon that does make it my business, because I need to have a pretty good sense of the replacement timetable so I don’t make a bigger fool of myself than I already have.”
Scarlet leaned his head back against the bedpost and exhaled deeply. Women, he thought savagely. Forget the Mysterons. Forget all the other weird and wonderful beings that might populate the universe. They were no match for the utterly alien race of women. No matter how close you got to friendship and understanding, they would always ensnare you in the honey trap of honesty and then snap it shut. And Karen Svenson was the queen of the hive.
“Please understand something,” he said quietly. “I have never felt the need to tell someone I loved them in order to fast-track them into bed with me; unless it happened to be true, of course. Do you really think I’m that cheap?” He raised himself on his elbows and gazed down at her. “You want honesty? Okay. I’ve been unfaithful to Dianne on six separate occasions, three of them with the same person. Love was never in the equation. I wasn’t proud of it then and I’m not proud of it now. I’m not making excuses, but none of it would have happened if Di had been there. I think she understood that, which may be why she forgave me.”
Karen stared at him in disbelief. “She knew about it?”
He nodded. “I didn’t want to hurt or humiliate her, so I never told her and she didn’t ask any questions. But.....we both knew the score and she probably was hurt, although she never confronted me about it. I suppose to her, it was proof that I no longer found her desirable, which would never have been true. But I’d spent years trying to convince her of that and she never really believed me. I’m ashamed to say that in the end, I probably stopped trying.”
He paused. “Di was the kindest, most unselfish person I’ve ever known, but she was also pretty pragmatic. She understood the things that can happen in the sort of life we lead. I think she just decided to turn a blind eye to whatever went on when she wasn’t around, on the basis that in the grand scheme of things, it didn’t matter. And she was right; it didn’t. She knew I would never leave her and the kids.”
“Did she? How do you know? Did you tell her that?”
“Of course she knew,” he protested. “She understood what mattered most to me. All the rest of it was just......stuff.”
Karen laughed suddenly. “Oh, yeah. Stuff; I remember it well. Cloudbase, that hotbed of lust and temptation – well, whenever Colonel White’s back was turned. And sometimes when it wasn’t. When Adam took over as C-in-C, he tried to relax the regulations a bit. He used to say people needed to let off steam. Most of us probably misused sex as a stress combatant from time to time.”
She turned a mischievous face to his. “There’d be the Euphoric Fuck when everything had gone well and the Consolation Fuck when it hadn’t.”
Scarlet grinned. “Well, it was always preferable to a stint in the Room of Sleep, that’s for sure. But you know, sometimes it’s not really about sex, it’s about comfort. If you’ve been to hell and back with someone on a mission, it’s hard to disconnect when it’s over. You’ve shared so much; you don’t want to lose the closeness and understanding.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Don't tell me you were frightened to sleep alone in the dark; you seriously expect me to believe that's what your indiscretions were all about? Comfort and closeness?”
“Pretty much. But that’s not an excuse. It still shouldn’t have happened. I’m old enough and experienced enough to know better. I took advantage and that was wrong.”
Karen sighed heavily. “Well, you’re not a saint, Paul,” she acknowledged. “And even if you were, it would be hard to argue that would make you less deserving than ordinary mortals; despite the fact that you don’t exactly qualify as an ordinary mortal.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” he replied caustically. “And that fact pretty much brings us full circle, doesn’t it?”
Karen was silent. She reached over him, picked up the wine bottle and decanted its dregs evenly between their two glasses. “None of us have led blameless lives where our relationships are concerned,” she said eventually. “I certainly haven’t and Adam.... well, it turned out he wasn’t completely immune to temptation either.” She caught the wary look on Scarlet’s face. “Oh, don’t pretend you didn’t know.”
He shook his head. “Karen, it was always obvious to everyone when you were punishing Adam for some transgression, imagined or otherwise, by trying to make him jealous. But you know how closed-up he could be; he’d never kiss and tell and despite what you might think, he never confided in me about things he considered really private. That’s one of the things that made him such a good C-in-C; he knew how and when to keep his mouth shut.”
She sighed. “Well, you’re right, of course. If behaving badly was an Olympic sport, I’d win gold every time. All of it was done to hurt him, to punish him for the stuff that had gone wrong in my life, even when I knew he wasn’t responsible for it and could do nothing to alter it. I spent years pushing him away, never believing he’d actually go. Then Val came along and I finally got my wake-up call.”
Scarlet frowned. He said, “Val?”
“Valdis Arnorsdottir: our esteemed former World President,” she replied with a wry smile. “She turned out to be my nemesis – and what a shock that was.”
The pieces of the jigsaw suddenly clicked into place in Scarlet's mind. He was aware of the close friendship that had developed over the years between the ambitious Icelandic politician and Karen's husband. It would have taken a blind man not to spot the chemistry between the two, but the then Colonel Blue had always categorically denied rumours of an affair.
“I knew they were friends,” he said slowly. “It was clear there was a deep attraction there, but Adam never gave any indication that it had gone beyond that.”
She grinned. “He was a damn good liar. That's what made him such an excellent poker player and a pretty effective politician himself. But in all the years we both played away, I never imagined he’d leave me - not permanently, anyway. I’d heard the rumours about him and Val, of course, but I didn’t think it was serious. None of my little affairs meant anything, so I naively assumed that Adam felt the same way. Sure, I was jealous as hell, but I never thought.....” she paused and took a gulp of wine. “Anyway, he called me one night when I was still working at the training base in Glenn Field and said we needed to talk. Not over the airwaves; he was going to fly down for a face to face summit. God, I’ll remember that conversation to my dying day. He was so damn polite. When would it be convenient to come? Could I make some space in my diary? Like he was talking to a stranger. I knew then that I had a problem. It wasn’t until I saw his face as he stepped off the plane that I realised just how massive it was.”
“What did he want to talk about?”
“Divorce. He sat me down and told me very calmly and quietly that it was high time we stopped torturing each other and accepted the fact that our marriage was over. He said he still loved me, but he’d finally realised it wasn’t enough to make it work. He’d met someone else and he wanted to be with her. He wouldn’t put up any fight over property or money: I could have whatever I wanted as long as I agreed not to drag things out in court. Negative publicity wouldn’t have been good for Val’s presidential hopes, apparently.”
“My God.” Stunned, Scarlet sank his head back against the pillows. “Did he want to marry her?”
Karen shrugged. “I don’t know. But he sure as hell didn’t want to be married to me anymore. He was tired of being miserable. He said she made him happy and he’d forgotten how that felt. That’s when I knew I was in for the fight of my life. I was losing the one person who meant the most to me. I couldn’t believe what a stupid bitch I’d been.”
“What did you do?”
“Everything I could think of, short of hysteria. I knew I couldn’t play that card any more. But I’d have done whatever it took to change his mind, including getting down on my knees and licking his boots if it had been necessary.” She gave Scarlet a sidelong glance from under her dark lashes. “It all got pretty ugly at times, but I was determined I wasn’t giving up my husband without a fight, however dirty it got. It took time, but eventually he agreed to give it one more go.”
Scarlet wasn't fooled by her rather evasive terminology. The words 'pretty ugly' suggested a rather nasty cat fight had taken place; knowing what he did of both Karen and Valdis Arnorsdottir, he had little doubt that both sides would have used whatever tactics they deemed necessary to get what – or- who they wanted. He would not have put money on Karen coming out as the victor, however.
“Did he end it with Valdis?” he asked, deciding not to press her on the finer points of just how she had won back her husband.
“He said he would, although I didn’t ask him to. I was prepared to have him back on any terms. I guess I knew, though, that once Adam made a promise, he’d stick by it and I choose to believe he did. I understood that he would have to continue seeing her on a professional basis and he remained close friends with her for the rest of his life. I had to respect that, however uncomfortable it made me.”
“That can’t have been easy.”
“It wasn’t. But I finally grew up enough to realise it was no longer about me. For the first time in our marriage, Adam was calling all the shots and I was in no position to challenge it. Just getting him to stay with me was only the first part of the battle; I needed to prove to him that he’d made the right decision. In order to keep him, I knew I was going to have to be a damn sight better wife than I’d ever been before and part of that was getting to grips with my trust issues.” She paused, swallowing hard. “I hope he didn’t regret letting Val go, but I suppose I’ll never really know.”
“I always wondered what it was that brought the two of you back together,” Scarlet said thoughtfully. “I mean, it was obvious that things were better between you and we were all pleased at that, but Adam never let slip what had happened to change everything.”
“We had more than fifteen years after that,” she said wistfully. “They were good, for the most part; sometimes it was almost like it was in the early days. We were happy, I know we were; but I wish I’d had longer to make up for all the misery I put him through.”
Scarlet shook his head. “Regrets are pointless, Karen. They don’t change anything. But I’ve just remembered something Adam told me shortly before the accident. He reminded me that it was your silver wedding anniversary this year.”
She nodded. “It would have been twenty-five years last month. We were thinking of having a party......” Her voice trailed off and she raised her hand to dash away a tear.
“Adam was thinking of more than that,” Scarlet said quietly. “He was organising a wedding. He wanted to get married.”
“He couldn’t think of a gift for the woman who has everything, he said. Then he figured that renewing your vows might mean more than jewellery or clothes. He wanted it to be a surprise for you. I’m not sure how he was going to manage that, but I suspect your mum was in on it, so no doubt it would have worked out splendidly.”
Karen’s face was a study in disbelief. “He wanted to marry me? Again? After everything?”
“After everything. I think it was his way of proving to you how much he still loved you, no matter how dirty the water under the bridge had been. You were his choice, his Wife-for-Life. He used to call you that, you know. Whenever you were planning your annual month in the sun, he’d always say, I’m taking my Wife-for-Life on our umpteenth honeymoon. Seymour and I used to chuckle at that until we saw the agenda he’d left us. That usually wiped the smile off our faces.”
“Well, he probably thought being married to me was a life sentence, despite the ‘honeymoons’,” she replied, her voice shaky.
“A sentence he was more than happy to serve,” Scarlet responded, dropping a soft kiss on her cheek. “He knew he’d made the right choice, Karen. I don’t think he had regrets.”
There was silence for a few minutes as they both sipped their wine, lost in memories of the past. Karen looked at the man beside her, a man who despite what had happened between them, had still been kind and generous enough to reassure her of her importance to her late husband. He really is one in a million, she thought. And I am one extremely lucky woman.
Still, she couldn't resist teasing him. Raising herself on one elbow, she jabbed him in the chest. “Getting back to what this conversation was originally about.....” she murmured.
“Sex and infidelity. We've mentioned the Euphoric Fuck and the Consolation Fuck. What's tonight? The Mercy Fuck?”
She got her reward as Scarlet swore savagely under his breath. “Christ Almighty,” he muttered. “Is there no end to this? What the hell will it take to convince you......?” He paused, suddenly hearing Adam's voice echoing in his head saying precisely the same thing and realised he had fallen into the trap his friend had never managed to avoid. Taking a deep breath, he said decisively, “All right, try this. Confession time. Your dress this evening; I need to explain what that was all about.”
She raised a quizzical eyebrow. “The mysterious and embarrassing memory? What does that have to do with anything?”
“Just shut up for a minute and I’ll tell you. Remember when the Mysterons tried to kill that French fashion designer who was also head of our European Intelligence Unit?”
“Andre Verdain? Are you kidding? How could I forget? It’s not often assignments come with the kind of perks that one did. Juliette and I thought all our birthdays had arrived at once when he showed us our reward for saving his life. We got the pick of his latest collection. I worshipped at his feet for years after that.”
“I seem to recall that you looked more than ready to show Monsieur Verdain the full extent of your gratitude at the time, much to Adam’s chagrin,” Scarlet responded with a chuckle. “But the gifts weren’t the point. This is about the cocktail party the night before. Remember the frock you wore?”
She looked askance. “Christ, Metcalfe; it’s over thirty years ago. My memories tend to focus on what my hair looked like, not what I was wearing. I have no recollection.”
“I have, burned in my memory. It was the exact same colour as the dress you had on tonight, except it was long and floaty. It had full-length sleeves and a very decorous neckline but it did plunge a bit at the back.”
She raised a delicate eyebrow. “Plunge a bit at the back? Sounds like a rather dodgy plumbing experiment.”
“Well, I don’t know what the correct fashion terminology is,” he retorted, with a shamefaced grin. “All I know is that the effect was amazing. I was supposed to be concentrating one hundred percent on looking out for Verdain and in reality I spent the entire evening trying to figure out how the dress worked.”
“How it worked?”
“How it opened. How it closed. How hard it would be to get it off. What would be underneath if I ever managed to figure it all out. There weren’t any obvious zips or buttons; God knows, I checked.”
“Velcro,” Karen muttered in sudden understanding. “I remember now. The seams at the back were just stuck together with Velcro and covered with chiffon. Juliette had to tape me up – I’d never have been able to do it myself. I have no idea what, if anything, I had on underneath, but one pull would have ripped it all apart. It was a totally ridiculous dress, now I come to think of it, but I guess I didn’t expect to be flying a chopper and chasing Mysterons in it.”
Scarlet chuckled. “You managed it, though. You weren’t fazed at all. Neither was Julie. You both emerged without a hair out of place.”
“You bet. We were pros,” she declared with satisfaction. “Back then we knew what was important. We prided ourselves on never even smudging our lipstick. But Paul – I had no idea you’d ever harboured carnal thoughts about me. I’m shocked!”
“No, you’re not,” he scoffed. “You’ve always been the world’s most outrageous flirt. You had every heterosexual man on Cloudbase falling at your feet. Why would you think I was immune?”
“Because.....well, I don’t know, really. I was so much in love with Adam, I guess I didn’t pay much attention to the signals I might have been giving out to anyone else. And you only ever seemed to have eyes for Dianne so it never occurred to me that you might fancy me too. Why didn’t you say something?”
“For precisely those reasons,” he replied seriously. “By the time of the Verdain threat, you and Adam were an established couple, even though you were both doing less than your best to hide it. I knew I couldn’t have come between you even if I’d wanted to. In any case, things were heating up nicely with Di; I was beginning to think we might have some sort of future together. I certainly didn’t want to jeopardise that for a moment of madness. So I kicked my rampant hormones into touch and tried to start acting like a professional – as well as a good, platonic friend.”
“Which you’ve always been,” she answered, with a smile.
“I hope so. But I’m telling you this because I need you to understand something. This – us being together- well, it’s not nothing to me. I fancied you back then, I fancy you now and I’ve fancied you all the years in between. Okay, never in my wildest dreams did I imagine we’d find ourselves where we are right now, but my wildest dreams didn’t include the type of sex we’ve had, either. There was nothing merciful about it, my darling Karen Amanda, as well you know. In fact, I reckon I'm going to need my retrometabolism just to keep up with you.”
Her face clouded with a mixture of embarrassment and doubt. “Look, Paul, I can’t.... I mean, I don’t know where that came from, but I don’t think....”
“It’s okay,” he replied gently, pulling her up against him. “I understand. It wasn’t exactly typical for me, either. It doesn’t matter, Karen. It’s a journey and we’re just at the beginning. We’ll find out what works for us as we go along.”
She stared at him. “You want us to go on a journey together?”
“Yes. No. Well, what I mean is, we’re already on it, we always have been. But now we’ve been re-routed to a very delightful desert island that wasn’t included in Cook’s Tours. It’s up to us whether or not we get back on the boat.”
Karen groaned. “Christ, Metcalfe. How many mixed metaphors can you get in one sentence?” She yawned, rolling over and away from him. “Okay,” she mumbled into the pillow. “Maybe we’ll do this again, maybe not. I’ll think about it. Can I get some sleep now?”
Scarlet woke with a jolt. The room was still quite dark and for a moment he didn’t know where he was. He lay on his back and waited for his eyes to adjust. The Roosevelt. Karen’s suite. Okay. Something white and lacy fluttered in front of him and a light breeze wafted across his face. They had forgotten to close the bedroom window, he realised. Outside, the sky was soft blue, tinged with coral and gold. New York was waking up to a perfect autumn morning.
Automatically he reached out his hand to touch her, to let his fingers graze over her velvety skin, to be reassured by her warmth and softness as he had been throughout the night. She wasn’t there. He sat up and looked around him. The door to the bathroom was open, but the light was off. His stomach lurched in a moment of sheer panic. Where the hell was she?
Then his eye was caught by the rhythmic rise and fall of acidic green topped by honey-blonde in the vicinity of the bottom of the bed. Intrigued, he pushed himself up on his elbows and leaned over. Karen was stretched out, face down on the floor. She had on an electric green tank top over black running shorts, although her feet were bare. She was doing press-ups, counting softly to herself. Scarlet noticed she’d got to sixty-six and showed no signs of stopping.
He said, “If it’s horizontal exercise you’re after, I can offer you a more pleasurable alternative.”
She shook her head without breaking rhythm. “It’s nearly seven am. I’m usually on the treadmill at the gym by now.”
“Yes. But you were sleeping like the dead and I didn’t have the heart to wake you. So I settled for this. I need to work off the wine.”
She’d reached eighty and she wasn’t even slightly winded, he noted. “When do you eat breakfast?” he asked.
“Ninety-nine.....a hundred.” She rolled over onto her knees and peered up at him through a cloud of hair. “What do you mean, ‘that figures’?”
“It explains why you probably weigh less than a pre-pubescent teenager. Karen, love, you’re undeniably one of the most gorgeous women I’ve ever clapped eyes on, but you’re far too skinny. You need to put some meat on your bones.”
Her face twisted in a juvenile pout. “Don’t you know a woman can never be too rich or too thin? Besides, if I get fat, none of my very expensive clothes will fit me.”
“Then buy new ones,” was his calm response. “You can afford it. An extra inch or two on your hips won’t turn you into the Goodyear Blimp and you don’t need a concave stomach to be desirable. Nor do you need to spend every waking hour in the gym in order to be toned and fit. Get some perspective, for heaven’s sake.”
He climbed out of bed and headed for the bathroom, ignoring her two-fingered gesture of defiance. When he returned, clad in the hotel’s complimentary towelling robe, the shorts were already on the floor and she was peeling the slightly damp vest from her naked torso. “I’m going to take a shower,” she said, throwing him a provocative look. “You’re welcome to join me.”
He smiled. “You’re a class act, Mrs S. You make it hard to refuse and that’s one of the reasons I love you. But you’re going to have to go it alone on this occasion, because otherwise we’ll never get out of here. You take your shower and I’ll make coffee and order some breakfast. Oh, and by the way, Adam was wrong. You don’t look like Mr Magoo – more like a crazed blonde Betty Boop.”
“Thanks a lot,” she said shortly. “You look scruffy. You should have added shaving to peeing.”
“I did warn you.”
“I know. I’m not complaining. I’ll have grilled tomatoes and mushrooms, one slice of wholemeal toast without butter and a glass of pink grapefruit juice. Oh, and black coffee, no sugar.”
“Fine,” he replied mildly, dutifully picking up the room service menu. Her eyebrows knit together in a suspicious frown, but his expression remained neutral. Shrugging her shoulders slightly, she disappeared into the bathroom and shut the door firmly.
Twenty minutes later, she emerged in a cloud of steam, wrapped in a huge white towel. Another was wound round her head, turban-style. Scarlet was pouring freshly brewed coffee while presiding over a heavily laden trolley of food. He looked up with a smile. “Breakfast is served,” he said.
“What’s that smell?” she demanded accusingly. “I didn’t order bacon.”
“But I did,” he countered. “I reckon after last night’s activities, I’m entitled to a full English. You don’t have to have it all if you don’t want to; but you are required to have some of this.” He lifted the lid off a tureen containing richly golden, fluffy scrambled eggs.
He saw the horror on her face. “Protein, Karen, protein. It’s what you need,” he chided. “You won’t get it in just mushrooms and tomatoes. I don’t know if that’s what you usually have, or if it’s some kind of penance for the fact that you ate one third of a cheeseburger and four fries for lunch yesterday, but whatever it is, you can forget it. It’s not what you’re having today. Now sit down and eat.”
She slid noiselessly into the chair he pulled out for her. She watched in silence as he poured coffee and heaped eggs onto her plate. “I.....Paul, I can’t eat all this, I really can’t,” she said weakly. “It’s just too much. You know I’m not a breakfast person.”
But you used to be, he thought. There was a time when you’d eat everything in sight. So what exactly is going on here?
“Karen, are you anorexic?” he asked bluntly. “Bulimic, possibly?”
Her lovely hazel eyes widened in shock. “Of course not! I don’t have an eating disorder!”
“Good. So you can finish your breakfast, then. All of it.”
She picked up her fork and angrily stabbed a grilled mushroom. “You’re such a bully,” she complained. “You’re worse than Adam. What makes you think you can boss me around?”
“Because I love you. Because sometimes you need to be bullied. Because you don’t always know what’s good for you.”
“Oh, and you do?” Her voice dripped sarcasm.
“Most of the time, yes,” he replied calmly. “I’ve known you over thirty years, Karen, well enough to recognise when you can be your own worst enemy.”
“Back at you, Metcalfe. You’re not so perfect.”
“Never said I was. But you need someone to stand up to you. That’s what makes it interesting. You’d be bored to tears with somebody who’s completely oblivious.”
She flashed him a look of wry amusement. “Well, I guess that’s true enough. Maybe that’s what kept Adam and me together. Even the really bad times were never boring. There was always a spark.” She put down her fork and turned her gaze absent-mindedly towards the window. “God, I miss him. I miss him so much.”
“I know. I do, too,” Scarlet replied quietly. He reached across the table to grasp her fingers in his own. “But I think it’s better than being angry. In the beginning, I was just so bloody furious with them both for dying. I was too consumed with rage to grieve properly. Okay, I suppose it kept me going, got me through, but it wasn’t healthy.”
He shrugged. “Well, I’ve stopped wanting to smash furniture every time I look at Di’s picture. The shrinks would probably say that’s a positive sign.”
Karen gazed down at her plate. She picked up a piece of toast and examined it carefully as if checking for any stray butter that might have encroached on it. Satisfied that it was unadulterated, she raised it to her mouth and then put it down abruptly. “You know what I did after they told me he was dead?” she asked, conversationally, as if recounting a tale of a minor domestic incident. “I went upstairs and pulled apart his wardrobe. Then I got some dress-making scissors and cut up all his suits, silk shirts, designer jeans, the lot. I even had a go with his shoes. I only admitted defeat when the scissors broke apart in my hands.”
Scarlet sucked in his breath. “Jesus, Karen.”
“I know. It was a terrible thing to do. I wanted to punish him for leaving me by destroying the things he loved. I was completely out of control. If I’d been able to lay my hands on the keys to the garage, I might have torched his beloved Ferrari – his pride and joy.”
“Thank goodness for lost keys, or I wouldn’t be enjoying my inheritance,” Scarlet responded with a rueful smile. “I love that car even more than Adam did. I just wish I had the opportunity to drive it more often.”
“I’m glad he left it to you. It needs a careful custodian and you’re it. But the thing is, the rational part of me knew that if I didn’t get rid of stuff immediately, I’d never be able to. So maybe it was cathartic in a way.”
He nodded. “Like I said last night, I’ve struggled with Dianne’s things. That’s why I was glad when Susie offered to go through everything. I knew it had to be done, but I couldn’t even bear to think about it.”
She looked at him thoughtfully. “Don’t you think this is odd?” she asked. “That we’re talking about them like this – after last night?”
“Not really,” he replied, shaking his head. “The way we feel about each other may have changed, but not the way we feel about them. We were all soul mates, Karen. The four of us shared so much that we could never share with anyone else. Now, there are only the two of us left who understand that. No matter what the future holds for us, I hope we’ll always be able to speak freely about it all; without guilt or censure.”
She was silent for a moment. Then she gave him a quizzical look. “So what does the future hold for us, Colonel Scarlet? Where do we go from here?”
“Well, right now, it’s Cloudbase for me and Boston for you,” he replied seriously. “But I meant what I said, Karen. I’m not interested in a one-night stand. I want more. I know it won’t be easy, given our respective circumstances, but I don’t see why we can’t make it work somehow.”
“We’re a bit old to be dating,” she replied crisply. “And in any case, I’m not sure I want a long distance romance. I’ve never subscribed to the theory that absence makes the heart grow fonder. In my experience, absence leads the heart astray.”
“Not in this case,” he retorted with an emphatic shake of his head. “I’m serious about you, Mrs Svenson, and after last night you should know that. But I’ll try not to put pressure on you. I understand if you want to take things slowly.”
She gave him a look of incredulity. “Are you kidding? Putting the brakes on now would seem a bit pointless after we’ve already hit third base in unseemly haste. We can hardly backtrack, can we?”
“I guess not,” he conceded with a grin. “Not that I want to, either. What I want is to be permanently holed up in here with you – as long as you’re naked and we have endless room service. However, I do see how that’s not very practical.”
Karen reached over and gave him a tender peck on the cheek. “No, it’s not,” she answered with a smile. “So what is? How do we manage this?”
“I’ll call you,” he said decisively. “Every night, unless I physically can’t do it. You call me, too. You can tell me about your day, what Peter’s been up to, how your course is working out. I’ll regale you with tales of my death-defying exploits and moan about filling out paperwork, as always. We’ll whisper sweet nothings to each other across the vid-link. I’ll try to rearrange my work patterns so I can fly to Boston as often as possible. You can visit me on Cloudbase sometimes. I know you’re not technically a member of Spectrum any more, but you are the widow of a former C-in-C and an ex-Angel to boot. No one will question your right to be there and Seymour will always be pleased to see you.”
“Hmm. I can always tell him I’m just making sure he’s taking good care of Adam’s ashes,” she responded sardonically. “Where did he put them, anyway?”
“They’re taking pride of place on the bookshelf in my quarters,” Scarlet assured her. “Ready for the day I will accede to your request to mingle them with your own and have you both jettisoned to the winds through one of the portholes.”
She made a face at him. “When I said that, I couldn’t wait for that day to come,” she admitted. “I thought my life was already over, just as Adam’s was. But now.....” She picked up her toast once more and nibbled delicately around the edges.
“And now?” he prompted.
“I suppose it might work – us, I mean,” she replied thoughtfully. “Not so different from what we were used to with our spouses, really.”
Scarlet exhaled in relief. “Exactly. Karen, it’s not ideal, but we know that. We’re used to it. And who knows? Things might change. We might change. No-one knows what the future holds; we’ll decide what’s best for us as we go along.”
She smiled at him. “You really do want this, don’t you? You’re not put off by anything; not the lines, the wrinkles, or the fact that my hair is drying naturally into a matted frizz because it’s crying out for electronic assistance.”
“At last! She believes me!” Scarlet raised his eyes and hands to the heavens in mock supplication. “Karen, your hair’s great; the curly look suits you. And for what it’s worth, you look ten years younger without all that gunge on your face. But even if that wasn’t the case, it wouldn’t make a jot of difference to how I feel about you. Now will you please shut up and eat your breakfast? We both have planes to catch.”
She grimaced in distaste. “These eggs are cold. Will you make me a bacon sandwich while I get dressed and do my hair?”
“Certainly,” he replied with a satisfied nod. He picked up a large breakfast bap, deftly splitting it open. “What would you like with it? Mushrooms and tomatoes? The healthy option?”
“Yes. No.” She gazed down at the laden table, indecision written all over her face. “Oh, what the hell,” she said eventually, with a resigned sigh. “Since you’re so determined to feed me up, make it sausage and bacon. Stick on some hash browns if there’s room. I suppose I might as well have my total daily calories in one go.”
“That’s my girl,” Scarlet pronounced with a broad grin of approval. He piled the bread bun with as much bacon, sausage and fried potato as it could reasonably contain and handed it over. “Get your choppers round that and we’ll have you at a normal weight before Christmas.”
“Oh, bugger off,” she replied, with another two fingered salute.
Cloudbase, December 18 2100
“Paul, I’m sorry. I missed your birthday.” Over the airwaves, Karen Svenson’s face and voice resonated with anxiety.
Colonel Scarlet lay back on his bed in his quarters and pulled the communication device towards him as if by doing so, he could make her presence real. “Well, it’s no big deal,” he replied. “Birthdays this close to Christmas are never great. Anyway, I wasn’t exactly in a position to celebrate it.”
“No, I know. I called last night and Griff told me you’d been hurt... I was worried. How are you?”
“I’m okay. I took a couple of bullets, that’s all; nothing too drastic, even though it was bloody painful at the time.” He gave her a cheerful smile. “I always bounce back, darling. You know better than to worry.”
“I still do, though,” she retorted sharply. “I find myself worrying about you just as I did about Adam, even though it’s stupid and like all men, you don’t damn well deserve it.” Her voice broke on the words and she dashed her hand across her eyes. “Don’t make me cry again today, Metcalfe, because it’s just more than I can handle.”
“Karen?” Scarlet studied her face with concern. “What’s wrong, love? This isn’t just about me, is it?”
She shook her head, the tears now flowing freely. “It’s Charles. He had a stroke this morning. He’s in the Royal Berkshire Hospital. Mom’s with him and I’m flying over tomorrow.”
“Oh, my God.” Scarlet was momentarily lost for words. “How bad is it?”
“I’m not sure,” she replied, making a visible effort to pull herself together. “The medics believe it’s quite mild, but they’re still doing tests. His speech is a bit slurred, but he’s making sense, so they’re hoping that’s just temporary. But one arm is completely paralysed and he can’t walk unaided. They’re saying it’s too soon to know how much movement he’s likely to get back.”
“Oh, Karen; sweetheart.” Scarlet raised his fingers to his lips and blew her a sympathetic kiss. “That’s the best I can do across the airwaves, I’m afraid. How did it happen?”
“Mom says he woke up with a headache, so he went to get some painkillers. Next minute, she heard a thud, went to investigate and he was on the bathroom floor; conscious, but helpless. He knew what had happened, though. He told her to call an ambulance immediately. The paramedics got there pretty quickly and started treating him straight away.”
“Early treatment will improve his chances,” Scarlet confirmed, with a nod. “Karen, he's the toughest old boot I know. He’ll come through this. I just wish I could be there with you, darling, but things are manic right now; it’s impossible to get away.”
The lines of strain on her face softened into the ghost of a smile. “Well, I admit I could certainly do with your arms around me tonight. But I need to start being practical and go pack a bag for tomorrow.” She hesitated briefly before continuing. “This will alter our plans for Christmas, Paul. There’s no way I can jet off to the Maldives now. I’ll have to be with Mom for as long as she needs me.”
“Of course you do,” he responded immediately. “Christmas is the last thing you need to be thinking about right now. Besides, I’ve just had my third battle of words with Susie on the subject; she’s determined to have a traditional Christmas at home, doing things exactly as her mum did. She’s even inveigled Ace and Freya into joining her ballgame; she persuaded them to give Freya’s family in Cornwall a miss. So as you can imagine, she was less than impressed when I said I wasn’t making up the numbers. It might win me a few brownie points if I tell her I’ve changed my mind.”
Karen’s mouth twisted into a moue of distress. “I know the whole festive business was the last thing we both wanted to deal with,” she said. “I was looking forward to a little private beach with just the two of us on it. Now... it’s looking like Intensive Care Christmas – if he makes it that far.”
“He will.” Scarlet hoped his expression was as confident as his voice. “He’s survived far worse than this, Kaz, and you said the docs think it’s been quite mild. He’ll pull through.”
“I hope so, but....Mom sounded really frightened this time, more than after the heart attack, even. I think she believes she’s going to lose him.”
Scarlet was silent for a moment. His former Commander-in-Chief had lost none of his acumen and mental agility in the years following his retirement, so it was easy to lose sight of his mortality. He couldn’t imagine a world without Charles Gray in it, but now he realised that moment might be rapidly approaching. He glanced at the duty roster and the wall map showing Cloudbase's regularly shifting place in the world and said decisively, “Look, no matter what happens, I’ll be with you; I’ll get away as soon as I can. You don’t have to cope with this alone, sweetheart; we’ll sort something out, even if it means we’re all gathered around his hospital bed for our turkey dinner.”
“Oh boy, he’ll love that,” she joked, although her cheeks were still wet. “I better go and pack now, hon’. I’ll call you as soon as I get more news from the hospital.”
“Okay. Watch what you’re doing on the drive from the airport – I know how reckless you are.”
“Huh,” she muttered, sticking her tongue out in unladylike fashion. “Thirty years and you’re still going on about that incident with the SPV......”
Hampshire, England, December 23 2100
“Dad! I think Aunt Karen’s here!” Without waiting for a response, Susannah Metcalfe hurtled down the wide oak staircase of Hollybank House and headed for the front door, heedless of the risk posed to life and limb in such a reckless descent. She flung open the door and launched herself down the stairs onto the gravel path where a dark-green Land Rover was coming to a somewhat skidding standstill on loose stones.
“I thought you’d never arrive!” she exclaimed, excitedly pulling open the rear door of the vehicle before the driver had even had time to shut down the engine. “Was the traffic really bad? Do you need a hand with your stuff? I think we’re pretty sorted for Christmas.... you’ve got your usual room, by the way. It’s not been used since you were last here....” She was already pulling bags and parcels from the vehicle’s capacious boot, oblivious to the lack of response from the driver, who could only take in her frenzied activity with a fond smile.
Karen Svenson, clad in boots, waxed jacket and tight-fitting jeans, opened her door and jumped down to the ground lightly. She ran round to the car’s rear to catch the younger woman up in a bear hug. “Hi to you too, sweetie. It’s great to see you again,” she said warmly. “Don’t worry about all this, we can get it later. Right now, I need to be indoors; this damn country never gets any warmer.” She released Susannah with a shiver suggestive of Arctic temperatures.
Susie straightened up, tucking her heavy fall of chestnut hair behind her ears. “It’s December, Aunty Karen. What do you expect? At least we’re not knee-deep in snow,” she replied with a grin.
“Thank the Lord for small mercies, then,” Karen murmured. “Boston might technically be colder, but it’s not as damp. This climate is doing nothing for my rheumatism.”
“Oh, rubbish,” Susannah scoffed. “You don’t have rheumatism. You’re amazingly fit.”
“Believe me, honey – everybody my age has rheumatism. You think your body will never betray you and it comes as a bit of a shock to discover that you’re not the exception that proves the rule.”
Susannah’s pretty face clouded over. “Dad doesn’t have it,” she said flatly. “Or arthritis, or heart disease, or cancer. I suppose he never will.”
Karen’s arm tightened on hers. “Well, maybe your father is the exception that proves the rule,” she said lightly, as they ascended the steps into the wide hallway with its polished wooden floor and elegant mahogany furniture. Not that much of it was visible, Karen noted in bemusement. Every available surface and picture frame was covered with fake nativity scenes and lit-up snow globes. She managed to find a spot on the hall table to deposit a gift of red and cream Christmas roses and berries.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Scarlet approaching them from the back of the house, which housed the garages, utility room and swimming pool. He was wiping his hands on a rather oily cloth, she noted.
“Karen, for heaven’s sake,” he exclaimed in exasperation, pulling her into a tight embrace. “I told you I would pick you up from Charles and Amanda’s. You didn’t need to hire a car – or a bloody jeep. What possessed you?”
“I wanted to assert my superiority on these infernal country lanes of yours,” she replied with a smile. “Besides, it seemed less of a risk than being a passenger in a sports car with you behind the wheel.”
Scarlet released her with a grin. “Oh, ye of little faith,” he pronounced, winking at his daughter. “I’ve been giving the Ferrari some good workouts over the last couple of days. I’m probably the safest driver around here.”
She examined her jeans carefully to see if anything on his hands might have detrimentally transferred to fabric. “Yes, well.... having just done battle with three tractors, two gritting machines and a herd of cows, I’m prepared to believe that might possibly be true,” she responded dryly, having satisfied herself that his fingers were clean. “Anyway, I’ve brought loads of stuff with me so I needed the room in the trunk. Mom virtually emptied her freezer – said they had far more than the two of them would ever eat and she needed to free up some space – so she insisted I took it. It won’t come amiss, I guess.”
Scarlet nodded. “Susie and Freya are doing Christmas lunch, so I’m told. They assure me it’s all under control, but I’m keeping the number of the local Chinese takeaway to hand – just in case.”
“That’s not funny, Dad,” his daughter growled, knitting her dark brows together. She turned to her godmother. “Ignore him, Aunty Karen. How is Uncle Charlie?”
“Doing better than anyone imagined,” Karen replied, relief on her face. “They allowed him home yesterday, on condition that he has a nurse coming in every day to check on him and make sure he’s behaving himself. The consultant wasn’t too happy about it, but he was threatening to discharge himself, so in the end, I think she saw it as the lesser of two evils. Mom will take good care of him.”
“Amanda certainly handles him better than anyone else has ever been able to,” Scarlet agreed. “If anyone can make him see sense, she will.”
“I’ll get Ace to bring your stuff in,” Susannah said, clearly reassured about her beloved Uncle Charlie. Both of the Metcalfe children had spent much of their early childhood on board Cloudbase and regarded its Commander-in-Chief as a surrogate grandfather. Their parents had been both surprised and amused to find that Colonel White, a man with no children of his own, accepted this role with alacrity and good humour. The sight of two small cowboys riding imaginary horses and shrieking with glee, pursued down the corridors of Cloudbase by Apache Chief Whiteface, bow and arrow in hand, had become the stuff of legend.
“Freya’s in the kitchen,” Susannah continued, gesturing in that direction. “She’s doing some kind of Cornish fish recipe for dinner tonight, it looks really good. Do you like the Christmas tree? I got one of the Longwood estate workers to chop it down and bring it over. We’ve got a smaller one in the living room, but I wanted to make a statement in the hall.”
Karen gazed at the huge tree dominating a too small space. Her decorative eye immediately registered that it had needed major topiary work before it had even got through the door. Pine needles were piled high around the base, not a good sign of longevity. It was groaning with every single decoration and set of lights the Metcalfes’ had ever owned. Disaster was the word that sprang to mind.
“It’s magnificent, Susie,” she said bravely, refusing to meet Scarlet’s eyes. “You’ve worked so hard. I’m very impressed.”
“I want Mum to like it,” Susannah said simply. “She always does Christmas so beautifully. I want to do the same. Shall I take your bag upstairs?”
Without waiting for a reply, she picked up Karen’s vanity case and trotted off with it.
Scarlet and Karen stood silently, watching her ascend the stairs. “Tree courtesy of the National Trust,” he muttered bleakly, as soon as his daughter was out of earshot. “Or more accurately, courtesy of some callow youth for whom the exchange of money was probably not the negotiated method of payment.”
Karen punched his arm lightly. “Oh, stop it, Paul. She’s doing her best. Cut her some slack, for goodness sake.”
“I know, but this...I mean, wait till you see the rest of it,” he replied, with a helpless gesture towards the overburdened tree. “There’s not an inch of the house that she hasn’t decorated. It’s a complete monument to bad taste. Di would have hated it. In addition, she’s organising the proceedings like a bloody military campaign with everything strictly geared to ‘tradition’ as she calls it. The whole thing’s horrendous.” He rubbed his eyes despairingly. “I can’t stand it, Kaz. How am I going to get through the next few days?”
“It is a bit over the top, I admit,” she acknowledged. “But it will be okay, honey. It will. We’ll make it work.” Glancing round the hall to make sure they were completely alone, she stepped forward into his arms and gave herself up to a lingering kiss.
“God, I’ve missed you,” he breathed, drinking in the scent of her hair. “I’ve missed you so bloody much.”
“Mmm, I can tell,” she replied teasingly, rubbing herself up against him. “Never had this kind of welcome for a while. You do a girl’s self-esteem a power of good.”
“My pleasure,” he murmured. “It’s one of the few aspects of Mysteronisation I don’t complain about. I wish I could take you to bed right now, but I suppose there are some proprieties we need to observe.”
“Dad? Ace says he’ll park the Land Rover up in the garage and bring in all the stuff through the utility room....” At the top of the stairs, Susannah’s voice trailed away in confusion as Scarlet and Karen sprang apart, guilt registering on their faces. “Dad?” she repeated, staring down at them with an expression of puzzled uncertainty.
There was a moment of frozen silence until Karen recovered her presence of mind. “Susie, thank you for doing all this,” she said with a bright smile. “I guess I should go hunt down your brother and Freya, give them a hand. I’ve just been saying to your father that I don’t expect to be waited on hand and foot. I want to pitch in.”
You’ve already pitched in. The words, unbidden and unwelcome, resonated in Susannah’s brain as she forced herself to continue down the stairs. Scarlet had darted back out to the car, handing its keys to his son before saying, “Hope you took out premium insurance, Kaz. The Boy isn’t used to parking something this size.”
“Just make sure he doesn’t scrape the Ferrari or Adam will be back to haunt him,” she shouted back, throwing a conspiratorial grin at Susannah who did not return it.
“Hi, Karen. I thought I heard your voice.” The tension broke as Freya Saville Svenson, clad in jeans and a white reindeer-embellished sweater, ambled out of the kitchen to plant a kiss on her stepmother’s cheek. “How are Nan and Charles? Is he any better?”
“Hello, darling.” Karen reached up to hug her very tall step-daughter. “Charles is doing okay, thank goodness, but he’s very frail. Not out of the woods yet, I’m afraid. They really aren’t up to company at the moment, they just want a quiet Christmas. But they send their love. Perhaps you can call them tomorrow?”
“Of course I will. Maybe we can set up a conference call, get everyone involved. Just for a few minutes, not so he gets overtired or anything.”
“That’s a great idea. What a thoughtful girl you are. Now, show me what you’re cooking for us tonight, it sounds intriguing.” Karen tucked her arm through Freya’s and led her towards the kitchen without a backward glance.
Left alone in the hall, Susannah stared out at the empty driveway. Her father had apparently decided to accompany her brother to the garage to ensure the safe parking of the Land Rover. The freezing winter wind gusted through the house and slammed the front door shut with a bang which made her jump. She stood stock still for a minute, waiting for her unsettled nerves to calm. Her instincts told her that she hadn’t misinterpreted what she’d witnessed from the top of the stairs, but neither could she bring herself to believe what it clearly implied. Filled with a deep sense of unease, she picked up the flowers deposited on the hall table and headed for the kitchen to find a vase.
“Freya, I congratulate you. This is a marvellous meal.” Colonel Scarlet raised his wineglass in tribute to the young woman on his left, her hand slipped surreptitiously but firmly into that of his son, seated next to her.
“Thanks, Uncle Paul,” Freya replied, flushing with pleasure at the compliment. “The recipe’s a favourite of my mum’s and it’s really very easy. It’s about all I know how to do, culinary – wise and even then, I had help from Ace and Susie.”
“Too right,” groaned Adam ‘Ace’ Metcalfe, feigning exhaustion. He inspected his free hand gloomily. “I think my fingerprints have dissolved with all the toxic washing-up liquid they’ve been subjected to.”
Scarlet raised an eyebrow. “Well, we do have a dishwasher and it isn’t you,” he said mildly, spooning up a last mouthful of tomato sauce.
“The machine only takes a few pans,” Susannah replied shortly. “Freya needed a lot more, so we had to wash up by hand. We couldn’t have left them; otherwise the place would have been a tip. You know Mum hates it if the kitchen’s a mess.”
Karen saw Scarlet’s brows come together in a quick frown. She knew that Susie’s continued references to her mother in the present tense were both upsetting and irritating him in equal measure. He was making little effort to hide his growing exasperation with his daughter and she was not doing anything to hide her antagonism towards him. She said swiftly, “Well, I think you’ve all done superbly. That was a delicious dinner and I’ve eaten far more than I should. I hope it’s not a family tradition to have a massive breakfast on Christmas Eve because I doubt I’ll be able to do justice to it.”
The table fell silent. Then Susannah began, “Mum always does.....” followed by her brother’s “I remember the year we....” to Freya’s “In Cornwall, it’s usually.....” to be eventually eclipsed by Scarlet’s bleak “I think it’s time we stopped all this.”
No one spoke. Ace looked questioningly at his father while Freya and Karen exchanged puzzled glances. Susannah was frozen, her face chalk-white. “Stopped what?” she whispered through bloodless lips. “Stopped Christmas?”
“Stopped living in the past; being hide-bound by what’s gone before,” Scarlet replied flatly. He addressed the table but directed his gaze to his son and daughter. “When Dianne and I signed over Longwood Abbey to the National Trust, we agreed we’d maintain a presence in the estate and we did. We went along with everything; fund-raisers, volunteering, financial pledges, family appearances at key dates in the calendar. We did the lot – or rather, she did. Well, no more. The estate no longer belongs to the Metcalfes; it’s past history. This is my home now, where I want my family to live if they choose to. If they don’t, I want them to be free to sell up if they think that’s the right decision.”
He gazed at Ace and Susannah in turn. “I hope you understand, kids. I want you to follow your dreams, live happy, fulfilled lives, wherever in the world that takes you. But live in the present and don’t allow yourselves to be limited by a responsibility to something that’s essentially just bricks and mortar.”
Susannah looked stunned. “Dad, we couldn’t ever sell Hollybank House,” she replied in a stricken voice. “It belongs to Mum, she chose it. Don’t you remember when we first came to look at it? She’d barely got through the front door before she told you to call the estate agents and make an offer.”
“I do remember,” Scarlet said reflectively. “She said, ‘this is it. This is our new home. I don’t need to see the rest of it to know it’s the one for us.’ I was surprised because it wasn’t like her to be so impulsive, but she turned out to be right, as usual.”
“Then how can you suggest getting rid of it? She’ll never forgive us!”
He sighed heavily. “That’s not what I’m suggesting, Susie. I just want to make the point that we can’t live in the past. Everything changes and we have to recognise when it’s time to let go and move on. Your mum understood that, she was the one who persuaded me to get rid of Longwood after Granny and Gramps passed away. The death duties were crippling us; I knew we couldn’t afford to live there anymore, but I didn’t want to admit it. I felt I was betraying my ancestors, letting down all the previous generations of Metcalfes who, against all odds, had managed to keep the place going for so long. Your mother found the way out for us. She negotiated with the National Trust to reach a settlement I could live with. The Abbey would be acquired for the nation to enjoy and we’d have enough money to buy another property. She made me see that my responsibilities were to the living, not the dead. It was the four of us who mattered, not the people who’d gone before and it was up to us to do whatever was best for the future of our family.”
Susannah’s eyes blazed; anger had eclipsed shock. “I see,” she shot back at him. “So what, exactly, is this about, Dad? Mum’s dead, so you don’t have to be responsible for her? You’ve moved on and you don’t give a damn about the past? She’s not here anymore, so it doesn’t matter about the things she loved? Well, I’ll tell you something – it matters to me and it always will!”
“That’s all too painfully obvious,” her father replied dryly, his eyes sweeping around the over-decorated disaster formerly known as his dining room. “But preserving this house as some kind of mausoleum to her memory isn’t going to bring her back, Susie. Putting up the nation’s supply of Christmas lights and talking about her as if she’s just popped next door won’t do it either.”
Karen winced and Freya sucked in her breath. Ace stared at Scarlet in stupefaction, as Susannah sprang to her feet. “I hate you!” she screamed. “Why don’t you just fuck off and leave us alone? We’d all be better off without you around.” She paused long enough to dash the contents of her wine glass onto her father’s shirt before racing from the room.
There was a moment’s stunned silence. Then Ace got to his feet, throwing his napkin down on the table. “Well done, Dad,” he said sarcastically. “How to ruin a nice evening in one easy lesson.” He held up a hand as Scarlet pushed his chair back and began to rise. “Stay put. I’ll go talk to her, see if I can pour oil on troubled waters.”
“I’ll make some coffee,” Freya said quietly, not waiting for a response before following her boyfriend out.
Karen watched as Scarlet dabbed his wet shirt with his napkin. “I’d like to say you didn’t deserve that, but it wouldn’t be true,” she observed crisply, refilling his empty glass for him.
He drank it down in one long gulp before saying bleakly, “You’re right. So is Ace. I seem to have a knack for putting my foot in it these days. I’m so sorry, Kaz. I just don’t know what’s going on with Susie and me. Everything I say and do seems to be taken the wrong way. She goads me, I hit back, we both lose our temper and... well, you saw what happens.”
Karen stretched her hand across the table to clasp his fingers in hers. “Paul, we know how grief goes. She doesn’t. Okay, she’s experienced the death of grandparents and much loved pets; all things that were expected to a certain extent. But this is different. This loss is so immense, so overwhelming; she has no idea what to do with all that anger and confusion, so she’s taking it out on you.”
“She blames me. She hates me. Those two things I understand. What I don’t get is how it’s ended up like this. I know I haven’t been the most hands-on father in the world, but I thought I had a decent relationship with her. How could I have got it so wrong?” ”
Karen shook her head, withdrawing her hand from his as Freya entered with a tray bearing mugs of coffee. “She didn’t mean those things she said. She was just hitting out. She’ll calm down.”
Freya glanced from one to the other as she set down the tray. “I couldn’t find your best china so I just used these,” she said apologetically, handing out steaming mugs.
“That’s fine, Flicka,” Scarlet replied, absent-mindedly using the childhood nickname her father had given her. “At least you didn’t give me the one that says ‘World’s Greatest Dad.” He stared gloomily at the photo of a blue Lamborghini printed on one side of the pot before rousing himself. “I owe you an apology,” he said. “It must be obvious that Susie and I are at odds with each other at the moment, but that’s no excuse for unpleasant scenes in front of our guests. I’m truly sorry.”
She gave him a sympathetic smile. “That’s okay, Uncle Paul. I don’t see myself as a guest, actually. I’ve always felt like one of the family, so there’s no need to apologise.”
“You have?” Scarlet sounded surprised.
Freya nodded. “When my mum married Simon – my step dad – and the twins were born, things changed at home. I wasn’t the happiest kid on the planet; I ended up living for the school holidays when my dad would whisk me away to places I’d only heard of in geography lessons. It wasn’t always exotic, though; sometimes he’d just bring me to Longwood Abbey for a few days so I could hang out with Ace and Susie. Aunt Dianne was so good to me; she always included in me in everything and made me feel special. I was envious of Ace and Susie. When things were bad at home, I wished I had the kind of family they had.”
“Oh, honey.” Karen slid a sympathetic arm round her stepdaughter’s shoulders. “I’m sorry things were tough for you. They were for everyone back then, but that wasn’t your fault; and you were too young to understand why things worked out as they did.”
Freya gave her a grateful smile. “I don’t mean to sound as if I had a terrible upbringing, Karen. I love my mum and I know she did the best she could. My father made up for everything I might have missed out on.” She turned to look at Scarlet. “That’s why I understand how Susie feels, Uncle Paul. I miss Dad the way she’s missing Aunt Dianne. Would it help if I had a word with her?”
Scarlet shook his head. “I think it’s best left to Ace,” he replied. “He usually manages to sort her out – a knack that I don’t seem to possess.”
If Scarlet could have overheard the conversation taking place in his daughter’s pretty lemon and white bedroom, he might not have been so confident in his assertion. For the umpteenth time in his life, Ace Metcalfe wished that his sister had been a boy. A brother would have been so much easier to grow up with, he thought.
As the eldest child of the family and often the only male presence in the home, he’d assumed the mantle of responsibility for his sister from an early age. Despite their childhood squabbles and teenage rivalries, they were a close-knit pair, presenting a united front against anyone or anything they regarded as a threat. However, despite the fact that Susannah would happily admit that her brother knew her better than anyone, it didn’t mean he always felt equipped to deal with her mercurial outbursts, and now was a perfect case in point.
“Suse, you and Dad have got to stop rubbing each other up the wrong way,” he pleaded, adopting as reasonable a tone as he could. “Mum wouldn’t like it – you know how mad she used to get when the two of you bickered, especially at the dinner table. She always complained that this family never seemed to finish a meal in peace.”
“Yeah, well. He’s not bothered about that any more, is he?” Susannah shot back, her face a sullen mask of hostility. “He’s moved on with his life, he doesn’t care. You heard him – he thinks we don’t owe anything to people who’ve died.” She stretched her hand out to accept the handkerchief her brother held out to her. “I wouldn’t put it past him to put this house on the market the minute I’ve gone back to uni,” she continued, blowing her nose noisily. “Then he can swan off to Cloudbase and concentrate on being Spectrum’s invincible hero; forget about Mum and us.”
Ace’s heart sank as she dissolved into fresh tears. He felt himself torn between the need to console her and the desire to slap her, neither of which would have the required result. “Susie, you’re being ridiculous,” he said eventually, unable to keep the impatience out of his voice. “Dad didn’t say that and it sure as hell wasn’t what he meant. I know he can be tactless sometimes, but to suggest he’d forget about Mum and abandon us is plain stupid. He adored her, you know that. There’s nothing he wouldn’t have done for her.”
“Except leave Cloudbase,” she retorted bitterly. “Come home, live with us, do stuff like other families do. Be normal. Oh, sorry, I forgot; he isn’t normal, is he? So that was never going to happen.”
Ace sighed. “None of this is Dad’s fault, Susie. He didn’t choose to lose both his wife and his best friend.”
“None of it’s our fault, either,” she replied fiercely. “We didn’t choose to lose our mother. But it happened anyway, just like all shit does. The difference is, we didn’t get to choose anything.”
Her brother bit his lip. It was true, he realised. His parents had made all the decisions relating to family life and the upbringing of their children. He couldn’t recall a time when he’d ever been asked what he wanted and he wasn’t sure what difference it would have made if he had.
He said slowly, “I suppose they thought they were doing the right thing. They tried to protect us as much as they could from all the ugliness they had to live with. Maybe they got a lot wrong. Nobody’s perfect, Sue. It was hard for them, too. All the time they spent apart, both of them trying in their own ways to do joined-up parenting; it was probably never going to work, but they did it anyway.”
He gazed out of the window at next door’s ginger cat, stealthily crossing the roof of the garage in pursuit of what it thought were a pair of unsuspecting magpies. The birds would have the upper hand, of course. Stupid old Marmalade, he thought affectionately. When’s he going to learn?
He turned back to his sister. “Remember all the times Dad came home after a long time away? Mum wouldn’t give him the lickings of a dog for the first three days because he was interrupting her single-parent routine. But when he went back to Cloudbase, she’d cry herself to sleep for a while.”
“She cried?” Susannah raised her head, startled. “I don’t remember that, Ace. She never shed more than a couple of tears at the airport. She was always upbeat, cheerful.”
“She did that for us, I think. She never wanted us to see how sad and lonely she was.” Ace paused, gazing out at the antics of Marmalade and the magpies. “But when she was on her own,” he continued after the lump in his throat had subsided, “I used to hear her sobbing. When we lived in the Abbey, my bedroom was next to theirs, remember? I was only about ten at the time, so I didn’t really know what to do. But in the morning, she’d always be bright and chirpy, so in the end I got the message that it was something she wanted to keep to herself.”
His sister frowned. “You should have told me, Ace,” she said accusingly. “I could have slept with her, kept her company, made sure she wasn’t lonely.”
Ace spread his hands in a gesture of despair. “No, Susie, you’re missing the point. Neither of us was the person she wanted at those times, no matter how much she loved us. It was her private stuff with Dad and we weren’t part of that. We were far too young to understand the ramifications of what they were both sacrificing to bring us up in as safe an environment as possible.”
Susannah, hard-headed as always, was only temporarily deflected. “Well, I’m not sure what he sacrificed,” she retorted, dismissively. “Let’s face it, who knows what he got up to on Cloudbase all those years when Mum was crying her heart out over him? Did he know? Did he care? It doesn’t look as if he cares now, at any rate. I think I’ll make it easy for him; I can buy my flat in Oxford with the money Uncle Adam left me. Then he can sell this place and shack up with Aunt Karen any time he wants.”
“Whaat?” Ace took a step backwards, holding up his hands in amazement. “What the hell goes on in your head, Susie? Why on earth would Dad move in with Aunt Karen?”
“Because...” Susannah’s voice faltered as she gave way to tears once more. “Because he’s having an affair with her,” she stuttered through her hiccups.
“And you know this, how, precisely?” Ace couldn’t hide his disdain or boredom with what he regarded as his sister’s flights of fancy.
She looked at him defiantly, wiping her eyes. “Because I saw them earlier, in the hall,” she hissed. “They looked like they’d been kissing.”
Ace exhaled in relief. Susie again, he thought. “Well, they probably had been, dolt! Since when is that unusual? They’ve known each other like, forever, and let’s face it, Aunt Karen has always been pretty hands-on in the affection stakes. It doesn’t mean they’re jumping each other’s bones.”
“Ace, I wasn’t born yesterday,” Susannah responded crisply. “I know the difference between social and sexual kissing. More to the point, I know the difference in reactions when people are caught doing one thing when they’re expected to be doing the other. When they realised I was there, they leapt apart like someone had thrust a red hot poker between them. Why would they do that if it was totally innocent?”
“Well, I don’t know,” Ace responded with a shrug. “But are you sure that’s what really happened? Maybe they were just startled. You read too much Mills & Boon, Susie; you’re as bad as Mum was. Dad and Aunt Karen have always been close. Now that they’re both in the same situation, it’s hardly surprising they’re turning to each other; Mum and Uncle Adam would have expected it. But that doesn’t mean they’re hitting the sack together. For one thing, they’re old codgers, even if they don’t look it; they’re hardly likely to be breaking bedsprings at their age. And if they are, good luck to them. Whatever gets you through the night is my motto.”
“Adam Charles Metcalfe! How can you say such a thing?” Susannah’s face was suffused with righteous indignation.
“Because I don’t for one moment think that’s what’s going on,” her brother retorted with a grin. “And because my girlfriend also lost her dad, don’t forget. It wasn’t the most auspicious start to a relationship, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the past seven months, it’s to suspend judgement, be as kind as possible and go with the flow. Then sometimes, good things happen.”
“To you, maybe; not to me,” Susie responded flatly. “Nothing's going right, Ace. I’m going to flunk out of uni and Dad knows it. He went absolutely ballistic when he found out I’d been cutting lectures; as if any of that stuff’s important now.”
Ace looked puzzled. “What do you mean?” he asked. “Of course it’s important. Look, Sue, if Dad gave you a hard time, it’s because he’s worried about you. He doesn’t want you throwing away your future.”
His sister gave him a hard stare. “What future? You don’t get it, do you? There is no future. There’s no point in anything. The Mysterons will win. They’ve already destroyed our family; it’s only a matter of time before everything else goes. What the hell use is a degree in archaeology if there’ll be nothing of the past left to discover?”
“I see. So you figure you might as well just sit in your jim-jams and watch soaps all day while you wait for the end of the world?” Ace was coldly sarcastic.
She scowled. “Who says that’s what I’ve been doing?”
“Dad; and the person who told him was your flatmate, Maggie.” Ace sat down on his sister’s bed and put an arm round her shoulders. “Everyone’s concerned about you, Susie,” he said gently. “Aunt Karen told me she’d tried to persuade you to see a shrink and you refused. But you know, maybe it might help you to talk to someone.”
“And tell them what, exactly? That I’m having a tough time dealing with the fact that our mother was killed by an alien? That there’s been a secret war going on between us and this particular bunch of extra-terrestrials for the last thirty-odd years? That in the process of defending the planet, my dad accidentally acquired some dodgy DNA which has rendered him immortal? And that as a result of all this, he races round the world like some kind of Peter Pan on speed? I don’t think so, Ace.”
“We don’t know that he’s exactly immortal,” Her brother muttered in protest. “We just know that he kind of.....regenerates. Nobody knows how long he’ll go on doing that for.”
“Well, I doubt the distinction would matter to any psychologist worth their salt,” Susannah replied shortly. “They’d immediately diagnose paranoid schizophrenia and have me sectioned in the blink of an eye.”
Ace fell silent, recognising the inherent truth in this. His parents’ attempts to shield their children from the brutal reality of their situation had come to a sudden end with the tragic events of seven months ago. When he had judged they were old enough to understand, Scarlet had tried to explain the basics of retrometabolism, but it was only now that his son realised there would always be questions for which there were no answers.
“Maybe you should talk to Dad – tell him how you feel,” he said slowly, knowing all the while that this was something he could do with his father, but his sister could not.
Sure enough, she shook her head dismissively. “What’s the point? Every time I try, it all goes wrong; look at what happened tonight.”
“Well, flying off the handle isn’t going to help,” Ace said impatiently. “It’s Christmas, Susie. You and Dad shouldn’t be fighting; come downstairs now and make it up with him. And stop letting your imagination run away with you over him and Aunt Karen.”
“Okay.” Susannah reluctantly allowed herself to be hauled to her feet and propelled towards the bedroom door, her dragging footsteps a clear indication that she was not wholly convinced by her brother’s argument.
In the dining-room however, her father did not hide his relief at her re-appearance. Quick to temper, he was nevertheless equally swift to acknowledge and make amends for his behaviour and now was no exception. “Susie, I’m sorry,” he murmured, jumping up to enfold her in his arms. “I didn’t mean to upset you, love. I shouldn’t have said the things I did. Please forgive me.”
“I’m sorry, too,” his daughter whispered back. “It’s just that I wanted everything to be so lovely for Mum and when you said......”
“I know, I know,” Scarlet finished for her. “And it is lovely, Susie: Mum would be proud. I didn’t mean to hurt you; I’m just a thoughtless old curmudgeon who doesn’t always think before he opens his mouth. But I love you and your brother more than I can say and the last thing I want is a rift with either of you. So can we please call a truce, at least over Christmas? I’ll do my level best not to put my foot in it again.”
“That’ll be the day,” his son muttered, sotto voce, smiling nevertheless. It was enough to break the tension in the room and everyone laughed as Scarlet feigned indignation.
“I think we should take our coffee and brandy into the living-room,” Karen announced, deciding that someone needed to take charge of the rest of the evening. “Paul, go and change that shirt; you smell like a barrel of partly-fermented grape juice.”
Susannah looked guilty as she noticed for the first time the mess she had inflicted. “Will it come out?” she asked anxiously. “I haven’t ruined it, have I?”
“It’s just red wine. It’ll wash,” her father replied with a reassuring shake of the head. “As long as you don’t dispose of my best cognac in the same cavalier fashion, I won’t complain.”
“Oh, good. No more drink-tossing for today, then,” Freya said sardonically, piling dinner dishes on the tray to take to the kitchen. She looked at Ace. “When you asked me to spend Christmas with your family, you never mentioned the entertainment. There’s never a dull moment, is there?”
Her boyfriend grinned. “Sorry. Did I forget to tell you about the front row seat at the annual Metcalfe family panto? There’s not a better show in town.”
“That’s enough, you two,” Karen chided gently, exchanging a rueful smile with Scarlet, who rolled his eyes in mock despair as he left the room in pursuit of a clean shirt.
Christmas Eve, Hampshire, England.
“Aunt Karen, are you awake?”
Karen Svenson, swimming up through the layers of sleep and consciousness, struggled for a moment to identify both the voice and the place. The room was still dark, although the bedside clock advertised that the time was 8.30 am. It took another few seconds for reality to kick in. Christmas Eve, Hampshire. The ‘best’ guest room at Hollybank House. Scarlet snoring gently beside her. The voice? Susannah. Oh shit, Susannah.
“Yeah, hon’. I’m alive, just. Is everything okay?”Karen raised her voice to a level that she hoped her god-daughter would hear through the closed bedroom door without disturbing the room’s other occupant.
“I’ve made you a cup of tea.” There was a pause, as if Susannah was uncertain how to proceed. Karen glanced round wildly. Scarlet’s eyes were open by now, his gaze unfocused but questioning. She put her finger to her lips in a shushing gesture while flinging the quilt as far over his head as she could manage.
“Aunt Karen? Are you decent? Can I come in? The tea will get cold if I leave it by the door.”
Bloody hell. Karen scrambled out of bed, reaching for her robe. “It’s okay, Susie, just give me a minute and I’ll come and......”her words trailed off as the door opened and Susannah’s chestnut head appeared round it.
Karen moved as quickly as she could to block the view of the bed, but it wasn’t enough. Scarlet, clearly confused, sat up, rubbing his eyes. “Kaz? What’s going on?” he said at the exact moment his daughter materialised in front of him with a mug of steaming liquid.
Later on, the only noise Karen could recall from that moment was the mug hitting the carpet and Scarlet’s sharp intake of breath as comprehension hit home. Frozen to the spot, Susannah stared at both of them as if she could not quite believe what she was seeing. Then, as Karen took a step towards her, the spell was broken. Shaking with anger, Susie turned blazing eyes on her godmother. “You bitch,” she yelled, shrugging off Karen’s outstretched hand. “You selfish, miserable whore! You were supposed to be her friend- how could you do this to her?”
Wordlessly, Karen shook her head. Scarlet said quietly, “Calm down, Susie and let us explain. This is not....”
“This is not what it looks like? Is that what you were going to say? I’m not that stupid, Dad. This is exactly what it looks like; you and the whore have been shagging each other’s brains out for God knows how long without any respect for Mum and Uncle Adam! I knew this was going on, I knew! And I let Ace persuade me I was wrong. But I wasn't, was I? You’re both disgusting!” And on that cry, Susannah turned and ran from the room.
As her door slammed shut along the corridor, a grim-faced Scarlet got out of bed and went into the bathroom to find a towel. Without speaking, he bent down to wipe up the spilt tea from the cream carpet. Karen watched in silence for a few moments before she crouched down beside him and removed the cloth from his hand. “I’ll do this. You have a bigger mess to clean up,” she said pointedly. “Get dressed and go sort out Susie.”
“You actually think I can say something that will make this any better?”
“Well, it’s hard to imagine it could get any worse,” she snapped back. “We’ve been idiots, Paul. We should have told the kids about us.”
He shook his head. “The reason I didn’t was because I suspected that’s the reaction I’d get – at least from Susannah, if not from Ace and Freya. It seemed easier to keep things to ourselves for the moment, especially as I wasn’t anticipating us all being together in one house over Christmas.”
“I guess we were a bit naive to imagine we’d be able to bed-hop successfully without being rumbled by Susie Sleuth,” she acknowledged gloomily.
Scarlet’s face hardened. “I’m sorry that she found out the way she did, but that doesn’t excuse her behaviour. She had no right to speak to you like that. I won’t tolerate it.”
“I’ve been called worse things in my time,” Karen responded with a rueful smile. “Go easy on her, honey. She’s had a nasty shock. Playing the heavy-handed father won’t improve matters.”
“I wish I knew what would, though. Where Susie’s concerned, things only seem to get worse.” With a resigned sigh, Scarlet got to his feet and pulled on his slippers and towelling robe in preparation for returning to his own bedroom to dress properly.
Karen stood up also and slipped her arms round his waist to hug him. “Maybe it would be better if I went back to Mom and Charles for Christmas Day,” she suggested gently. “I don’t want to ruin it for everyone.”
“What, and leave me to fight with Susie on my own? God, Kaz, no! I need you. Having you around is the only thing that’s making this nightmare bearable.”
The alarm in his voice tugged at her heartstrings. He did need her, probably more than she needed him when it came down to it. For Karen, whose feelings were always close to the surface and who was used to leaning on others for emotional support, it had come as both a surprise and a pleasure to discover how much comfort this normally tough, self-contained man took in the love she so freely gave him. She understood that Scarlet, used to dealing with loneliness and isolation, had, following the deaths of his wife and best friend, become completely untethered from the world around him. She was bringing him back, slowly but surely, securing him to his moorings once more.
“Go and sort your daughter out,” she replied with an affectionate kiss. “I’ll deal with the domestics. I think it might also be an idea to bring Ace and Freya up to speed, unless Susie’s already done it, of course.”
“It doesn’t sound like it. I think we’d have heard more ruckus by now,” he said dryly. “Two questions; will you talk to Ace and Freya and will you still be here when I get back?”
“Yes, to both. Now go.”
Scarlet was surprised to discover that not only was his daughter’s bedroom door unlocked, it was flung open in his face at the first tentative knock. He had obviously been expected. Susannah’s face, red and blotchy with tears, was also suffused with anger. “What the fuck do you want?” she hissed through clenched teeth. “Haven’t you done enough damage?”
He swallowed hard and tried to keep his voice even. “I’d like to talk to you. May I come in?”
“Be my guest.” She stood back to allow him to cross the threshold, glancing past him into the corridor. “So the harlot’s not with you? I dare say that’s because she knows she can’t explain herself; and I very much doubt that you can, either.”
Scarlet felt his anger building and made a concerted effort to hold it at bay. Losing his temper once more wasn’t going to accomplish much. “I don’t have to explain myself to you, Susie,” he said at last. “But I would like to, if you’ll listen.”
“I’m all ears,” she snapped back. “I’m actually looking forward to hearing how you’ll attempt to justify your complete betrayal of Mum and Uncle Adam; it’ll be good for a laugh, if nothing else.”
Scarlet sighed heavily, realising this was going to be even more difficult than he had imagined. He perched gingerly on the end of his daughter’s bed and reached out his arm to touch her shoulder. She jerked away angrily.
“I know you’re shocked and hurt and I’m sorry for that,” he ventured slowly. “Karen and I probably should have told you that things have changed between us. But it’s been very recent and I’m not sure either of us was ready to go public, so to speak.”
Susannah half-turned towards him, her eyes wide with incredulity. “Not ready to go public?” she spat. “How much more fucking public could you get? Screwing the bitch in Mum’s house, in front of her family, in her bed?”
“It wasn’t exactly in front of anyone,” her father replied with a glimmer of humour. “Other than Karen and me, of course. And as for your mother’s bed... well, it’s my bed too, as I recall and so is this entire house. I reserve the right to behave as I choose in my own home without seeking the prior approval of my children.”
The words were wrong. He knew that as soon as they’d passed his lips. But it was too late for a retraction. Susannah leaped to her feet, bright spots of colour staining her ashen cheeks. “Your home?” she echoed, icily contemptuous. “It’s never been your home! It might be a house you bought, but you’ve never lived here, not really. You just visited occasionally. The only people who lived here were Mum, Ace and me. So don’t talk to me about rights – you forfeited all of those a long time ago.”
She wasn’t just talking about property, he knew. Scarlet buried his head in his hands in despair. He was utterly lost in knowing how to deal with this capricious, wilful, beautiful young woman who looked so much like his wife, but who was completely alien to him in every other respect. The truth of her words resounded in his head. He couldn’t escape the fact that he hadn’t been the father he should have been.
“Susie, I’m sorry I wasn’t here very much,” he said at last. “You know the reasons for that – or at least, I hope you do. But it had nothing to do with how much I loved your mother, or the two of you.”
“Yeah, right. You loved everyone – including Aunt Karen, no doubt.” Susie was heavily sarcastic. “All those years when we were little; Freya used to say she wished she could swap my mum for hers. She never knew I wanted her dad to be mine. Uncle Adam always seemed to be here for us – you never were.”
Always seemed to be; always was. A deemed perception of what had gone before - perhaps a distorted perception from the point of view of children. It didn’t matter, Scarlet thought wearily. The battle was lost. Nothing he said or did now would make a difference.
He got to his feet. “I expect you to apologise to Aunt Karen,” he said heavily. “Whatever you think of me, she does not deserve the abuse you gave her.”
Susannah raised an eyebrow in defiance. “Doesn’t she? Isn’t she the slut who betrayed her husband and her best friend in one fell swoop? I’m damned if I’ll apologise. She’s a disgrace and so are you. I’m ashamed to call you my father.”
Scarlet stared at the cream-coloured bedroom door until it began to swim before his eyes. He felt his blood start to boil and his fists clench. He managed to straighten his fingers enough to ensure that the contact with his daughter’s face was a slap rather than a punch. “Don’t you ever, ever talk about Karen like that again!” he yelled. “What gives you the right to sit in judgement on everyone? You’re a silly little girl who needs to grow up!”
Susannah sat, frozen with shock, the marks of his fingers throbbing on her cheek. She’d always been able to twist her slightly strange, but over-indulgent father around her little finger. Although they'd frequently argued throughout her childhood, he had never struck her, no matter the level of provocation. She felt numb with horror.
Scarlet’s anger dissipated in the face of overwhelming shame. He took a step towards her and flinched as she shrank away from his outstretched hand. “Susie....baby, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean....” he began.
The sentence went unfinished as Susannah sprang to her feet. “Get away from me! I never want to see or speak to you again,” she shrieked, making a break for the door. Flinging it open, she raced along the corridor, clattering down the wide staircase and narrowly avoiding a headlong collision with her brother as he emerged from the living room, followed by Karen and Freya.
“What the hell......?” Ace muttered, scratching his head in bemusement as the front door slammed shut behind his fleeing sister.
Scarlet was descending the stairs more slowly, his shoulders slumped in defeat. Karen looked at his ashen face. “I’m guessing things didn’t go too well,” she said quietly.
“What was that you said? It couldn’t get any worse? Well, it just did,” he responded bleakly. He stared at the closed front door with a vacant expression. “She’s gone out without a coat. It must be minus two out there. She’ll freeze.”
“Well, at least that’ll help her cool off,” Karen replied firmly. “She tucked her arm through his and guided him into the living room. “Sit down and have some coffee. I think we could all do with a hot drink.”
Scarlet looked at his son and Freya. “I take it that you two know what Susie is so upset about,” he said.
Ace looked uncomfortable. “Yeah, I guess,” he muttered. “I mean, Aunt Karen has explained that you two have...erm, you’re.....”
“In a relationship,” Freya concluded tactfully, as her boyfriend’s voice trailed off. Karen threw her a grateful smile as she handed Scarlet a steaming mug of coffee. She sat down next to him on the sofa and picked up his free hand, lacing her fingers through his in an obvious gesture of solidarity.
Scarlet’s attention was focused on Ace, however. “I need to know how you feel about this,” he said quietly. “I appreciate it may seem shocking. We’re not asking for your approval, but I hope the whole thing doesn’t appal you as it much as it does your sister.”
“It’s a bit, well.....weird,” his son confessed, hesitating over his choice of words. “I guess it might take a little getting used to. But it’s your life, Dad and I don’t have the right to dictate how you live it. If you guys can make each other as happy as Freya and I are, then I say just go for it.”
“Thank you.” Scarlet rose from the sofa to envelop his son in a bear hug. “That means a lot to me.” He released Ace and turned his questioning gaze on Freya. “How about you, Flicka?”
Freya’s eyes went from him to Karen and back again. “It’s not such a massive shock, if that’s what you mean,” she replied. “I rather suspected something was going on.” As Scarlet raised his eyebrows, she gave him a wry smile. “You’ve been different at work, Uncle Paul. Everyone’s commented that you seem more.....connected, more switched-on than you’ve been since the....the accident.”
“Is that your way of saying I’m back to cracking the whip again?” he countered with a broad grin.
Freya went pink, but returned his grin, nevertheless. “I know you’ve been spending quite a bit of time with Karen over the last two or three months and it seems to be having a positive effect on her, too.” She turned to her father’s wife. “You sleep and eat more, Karen, and you’re not crying as much as you were. You’ve put weight on and changed your hair. It suits you, you look loads better. So, in the end, it wasn’t difficult to join the dots.”
“I’m getting fat? Oh, God,” Karen moaned, falling back on the sofa in a state of mock collapse. “This can’t go on... book me into a health farm immediately.”
“Not on your life,” Scarlet responded with a chuckle. “What will it take to convince you that concentration-camp skinny is not your best look?” He turned back to Freya who was gazing at both of them in amusement. His expression became suddenly serious. He said, “Susannah believes that Karen and I have betrayed the memories of her mother and your father. Do you think that, too, Flicka?”
“No,” was her immediate reply. At this, Karen sat up, a surprised look on her face. Although Adam’s daughter hadn’t indicated outright displeasure at this unexpected turn of events, Karen knew her well enough by now to know that she had inherited her father’s composure and reticence. Whatever she was feeling deep down would not necessarily be reflected in what she said. As if acknowledging that Karen knew this, Freya addressed her directly. “It’s clear that you two are good for each other,” she said simply. “My dad adored you, Karen and over the last few months, I’ve come to understand why. He knew you wouldn’t move on easily, but neither did he want you to be stuck in grief for the rest of your life. It may be fanciful, but it feels to me as if he and Aunt Dianne have somehow entrusted you to each other in their absence. I’m sure they’d both approve, so I have no reason not to.”
“Oh, honey.” Karen rose from her seat to wrap her stepdaughter in her arms. Their tears mingled as Scarlet and Ace exchanged rueful glances that said quite clearly, Women.
“Thank you both for your understanding, kids,” Scarlet said at last, in an attempt to lighten up this love-in. “I only wish Susannah could look at life through such mature eyes.”
“You’ll be waiting a long time for that, Dad,” Ace said flippantly. “At least until Mills & Boon publish a new range entitled ‘Middle-Aged Lust’ and she realises wrinklies can still get their rocks off.”
“Ace!” Freya said sharply, giving him a warning glance.
Unabashed, he crossed the room to the large bay window. “I wonder where she went to cool her jets,” he mused, looking out across the drive towards the tree-lined avenue leading down to the gate.
“I hope she’s not on foot,” Scarlet said with a worried look at the sky. “Snow is forecast for later on.”
“Nah. She’s probably taken her car and driven over to Nicola’s,” said Ace. “It’s on the other side of Winchester,” he added in response to his father’s blank look.
Ace sighed. “Come on, Dad. Nicola, Doctor Parker’s daughter? Susie’s best mate since primary school? Surely you can’t have forgotten her? Mousy hair, braces, freckles. Every birthday party, she always OD’d on trifle and was sick at the table. You must remember.”
“Oh, that Nicola,” Scarlet said hastily, not wanting to confess that he couldn’t recollect his daughter’s friend at all. But then, he hadn’t attended that many birthday parties.
“I’ll check the garage, see if her car’s still there.” Ace darted away towards the back of the house, leaving his girlfriend, her stepmother and his father in a suddenly awkward silence.
Karen, still dressed in her silk robe, picked up the coffee cups and padded barefoot into the kitchen. “I’ll bung these in the dishwasher and then I’ll get dressed,” she called over her shoulder. “Freya, maybe we should take a look at the veggie box and see what we need to prepare for tomorrow.”
“Okay.” Freya willingly followed her stepmother, perfectly comfortable with this domestic situation in someone else’s house. Scarlet stood alone in his living room, ruminating on changed realities. Now that there was no longer any need for secrecy, Karen had automatically moved to take charge, knowing she had the tacit backing of her stepdaughter and godson. She was not prepared to allow Susannah any more leverage, he realised. Whether or not this was a good thing wasn’t clear to him.
Before he had time to give it any more thought, Ace was back, a grave look on his face. “Um, Dad...”he began.
Scarlet spun round sharply. “Her car’s still here?”
“Well, yeah. But the thing is, the Ferrari isn’t.”
“What!” Scarlet’s exclamation drew the attention of Karen and Freya who both emerged from the kitchen wiping their hands as they went. “She’s taken the Ferrari?”
“Looks like it.”
“Christ Almighty. In these conditions.... and she’s not even insured.”
“Well, actually... yes, she is,” Karen admitted, a guilty look on her face.
Scarlet looked at her. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“When Adam drew up his will and decided he was giving the sports car to you, he asked me to ensure that everyone in the family was insured to drive it. That was you, Dianne and the kids, assuming they’d be old enough to drive. Obviously, I took Di’s name off the policy, but left everything else untouched. I’m sorry; I thought I’d told you.”
“You didn’t.” His voice was icy with accusation.
“Well, you obviously didn’t think to check,” she shot back, stung by his tone.
“Guys, guys.” Ace stepped between them, his hands spread in appeasement. “Calm down. My sister might be an idiot but she’s a first class driver. Wherever she’s gone, I’m sure that both she and the car will be fine.”
“Better be,” his father muttered, stalking out of the room after a murderous look at Karen.
Freya’s brows knitted together in a worried frown. “Susie wouldn’t deliberately take the Ferrari with the intention of......damaging it, would she?” she asked anxiously. “I mean, she seemed angry enough to do something silly.”
“To punish Dad and Karen? I don’t think she’d be that vindictive,” Ace replied with a shake of his dark head. “She’s hot-headed but not completely stupid. She’ll bring it back safe and sound.” He glanced out of the window at the ominously snow-filled sky. “That car doesn’t handle well in poor conditions, though. Maybe I should ring round all her friends, see if they’ve heard from her.”
“No,” Karen said sharply. “She doesn’t need baby-sitting; she’s not a child, even if she’s acting like one. She’s an experienced driver who’s more than capable of reading a weather forecast. Besides, she’s caused enough commotion for one day. I think we should leave her to come back when she’s good and ready.”
Freya and Ace exchanged doubtful looks, but didn’t reply. Karen had clearly made up her mind that she was not prepared to indulge Susie’s attention-seeking tendencies any more than they already had been. They could only hope that she was right in her assumption that Susie would see sense sooner rather than later.
Susannah had not returned by late afternoon, however. Nor had she reappeared in time for dinner, which turned out to be a peculiarly sombre affair. No-one wanted to voice their growing concerns over her safety, but by seven o’clock it was obvious that conditions outside were becoming treacherous. Although the snowfall was not especially heavy, temperatures had plunged once more and a layer of ice was forming over the top.
“The main roads will all be gritted,” Ace ventured at last, after a meal that had been consumed in almost total silence. “And she’s not likely to be stuck in a snowdrift; it’s not deep enough.”
“If she’s had an accident, we’d have heard by now,” Freya said, with an anxious look at Scarlet who hadn’t responded to his son’s comment. “The police or the hospitals would have told us. I’m sure she’s fine – the traffic’s bound to be really slow, it’ll take her longer to get home.”
“Can you think of anywhere else she might be?” Karen asked once more, knowing the question was futile. By late afternoon, Scarlet and his son had contacted all of Susannah’s friends and acquaintances. No-one had seen or heard from her.
“Maybe she’s driven back to her flat in Oxford,” Freya suggested hopefully.
“If she has, she’s not answering the phone,” Scarlet said bleakly. “I’ve tried the number several times – no response. Her flatmates have both gone home for Christmas, so if she’s there, she’s on her own.”
“Do you think we should contact the police, Dad?” asked Ace, whose concern for his sister had now become acute.
Scarlet shook his head. “I think it’s a little premature to file a missing person’s report,” he said slowly. “Freya might be right about Oxford, though. That’s probably the most likely place she’d go. We’ll give it another hour; if she’s not back by then, I’ll drive over there myself.” He looked at Karen. “I’ll borrow your 4x4, if that’s okay, Kaz. I’ll make better progress in that.”
“Of course,” Karen replied immediately. “But she left this morning without taking anything with her. Would she be able to get into her flat if it’s all locked up?”
“You just need a couple of pass codes to gain entry. She knows what they are; so do I.”
They all jumped as the dramatic opening bars of the theme to Flash Gordon resounded in the hallway at a deafening level. Ace leapt to his feet immediately. “I’ll get it,” he said and left the room without further explanation.
Karen looked askance at Scarlet. “What the hell is that?” she hissed, as Freya stifled a giggle. “Has Armageddon arrived?”
“It’s only the Vid-phone,” Scarlet answered, a resigned note in his voice. “I had it set on a sensible ringtone, but Ace decided to customize it.”
“It’s his favourite film,” Freya added, as if she thought more clarification was needed.
Ace poked his head round the door. “It’s your mum, Aunt Karen. She wants a word.”
“Oh, my God. What now?” Karen was on her feet and heading to the hall, closely followed by an equally anxious Scarlet.
“Mom? Is everything okay? Has something happened to Charlie?”
“No, no, darling. There’s nothing to worry about.” Amanda Gray’s attractive face beamed down from the wall-mounted screen. “We’ve had a rather interesting day, actually. We had a surprise visitor this morning who’s cheered him up a lot.”
“Really? Who was it?”
Amanda’s expression grew stern. “In the circumstances, I’m surprised you can’t guess,” she said tartly.
“Susie? That’s where she’s been? She came to see you?”
“What!” Scarlet almost elbowed Karen to one side as he tried to get closer to the screen. “How dare she upset you like this! She knew you both wanted – needed- a quiet time. She had no right to disturb you.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Paul. We might be old and doddery, but we’re not that easily upset,” Amanda replied in exasperation. “Believe me, we have a lifetime’s experience of dealing with distressed young women – and may I remind you that you two are not exactly blameless? You’ve brought much of this on yourselves.”
Scarlet and Karen exchanged glances. It was clear that the Grays knew exactly what had brought Susannah to their door.
“Mom, we know,” Karen replied, her innate honesty spilling out. “We never meant for things to work out as they have. But we’ve been so worried about Susie; we were almost on the point of calling the police.”
“Yes, well, that’s why I knew I had to call, even though she didn’t want me to,” her mother replied, her expression softening. “We offered her a bed for the night, but she wanted to get on her way. She left about thirty minutes ago – it’s not a long journey, but the conditions will slow her down. Still, we made sure she had snow chains – although how they fit on that ridiculous car, I have no idea- and blankets and a Thermos. She should be fine.”
“Thank you, Amanda. We really appreciate this.” Scarlet’s relief was evident in his face as he moved to put an arm round Karen to draw her in. “I dare say Susie put you through the mill today and I apologise on her behalf.”
“Stop being so pompous, Paul,” Amanda replied, with a grin. “No apologies are necessary, on behalf or otherwise. We old fogeys are quite flattered when the younger generations turn to us. It’s always nice to think we’re still needed; good for the ego. Oh, hang on – Charles is here. He wants to talk to you both.”
“Bet this’ll be fun,” Scarlet muttered in Karen’s ear, as they watched Amanda step back to allow her husband to manoeuvre his wheelchair into camera range. They’d expected pyjamas and carpet slippers; in fact Sir Charles Gray was dressed in jeans and a red snowflake-covered jumper which flattered his white hair and pale complexion. He was managing his still partially paralysed left arm with typical resilience and determination, they noticed. Pugnacious as ever, he shrugged off his wife’s attempts at assistance.
“I’m sorry Susannah’s intruded on your Christmas, Charles,” Scarlet ventured, determined to get in the first word. “I will be reading her the riot act when she gets home.”
“Indeed you will not,” his former commander replied evenly, fixing him with his customary steely gaze. His speech was still slightly slurred, but had lost none of its authority. “Giving your daughter a hard time may satisfy what you believe to be your parental obligations, but will do nothing to help you regain the moral high ground; something you have lost in rather spectacular fashion, may I say.”
Scarlet stiffened. “I don’t need a lecture on how to conduct my private life, Charles; neither will I condone my daughter’s appalling behaviour. She had no right to involve you in any of this.”
“If you had used that first-class brain of yours instead of paying attention to other parts of your anatomy, she wouldn’t have needed to,” the older man snapped back. “Spectrum expects its officers to use common sense and discretion in every situation, something you two have completely failed to do. If I was still in charge, I’d cashier you both.”
“I don’t work for Spectrum any more, Charlie,” Karen interjected, rolling her eyes in amusement. “I’m a private citizen; you can’t sack me.”
“More’s the pity.” Charles Gray’s stern expression relaxed slightly. He was very fond of his stepdaughter and had been deeply concerned for her welfare following the death of her husband. Like Freya, he’d been relieved to see her looking better in recent weeks, although the reason for it had come as something of a shock to him.
He reached his good hand up to cover his wife’s fingers which were resting lightly on his shoulder. “I must admit that Amanda and I were a little surprised to learn that your friendship has taken this somewhat....unexpected turn,” he continued gruffly. “But you’ve known each other long enough, so I expect you know what you’re doing; as long as you’re happy, you have our blessing.”
“One thing I’ll say for you, Karen; you certainly know how to pick the best-looking men,” Amanda said, her eyes twinkling.
“I must have inherited that from you, Mom,” her daughter replied with a grin, as Scarlet and Gray both coloured in embarrassment.
“Not everyone’s verdict has been so positive,” Scarlet said ruefully. “Ace and Freya have taken the news like mature adults, but Susie.....well, Susie’s apoplectic as you’ve no doubt discovered.”
“Hmm. Yes, this morning’s little discovery was most unfortunate,” Gray agreed. “But you really should have anticipated this, my boy. You know better than anyone that grief and raw emotion don’t always go hand in hand with rational behaviour. Perhaps you were expecting too much from a young girl who has just lost her mother.”
“Well, we didn’t do it deliberately,” Scarlet protested. “We weren’t expecting her to walk in on us the way she did.”
“Yes, well, I suppose these things happen,” Gray said, clearing his throat quickly. “Actually, my wife and I have experience of a...er...similar situation which Karen may also recall. It’s sometimes impossible to avoid difficult consequences,” he added, pretending not to notice the crimson flush spreading across his stepdaughter’s face.
Scarlet gave them both a puzzled look, but Karen kept her eyes averted. “The last thing we wanted was for Susie to inflict her histrionics on you two, though,” he said apologetically. “She should have known better than to wear you out, especially at the moment.”
“Oh, stuff and nonsense,” Gray retorted, with a dismissive wave of his fully functional hand. “Do I look worn out to you? No, don’t answer that. Susie’s been a most welcome distraction from the twin burdens of old age and illness. At least if I’m listening to her, I don’t have to listen to that fool of a nurse with her endless litany: ‘Take your tablets, Charles’, ‘Do your exercises, Charles’, ‘Have you been to the bathroom today, Charles?’ It’s like being back in kindergarten. Even my wife has taken to watching me like a hawk waiting for the sparrow to fall off its perch.”
“I have not!” Amanda protested indignantly. “You’re just a bad-tempered, ungrateful patient, that’s your trouble. You’d be in a sorry plight if we all up and abandoned you, Charles Gray.”
“I’d only be in a sorry plight if you abandoned me, my dear,” her husband replied placidly, patting her hand gently. “The rest can go hang.”
“Huh. You might not be saying that the next time you need a defibrillator,” Karen muttered under her breath, scowling at her stepfather. Out of sight of the camera, Scarlet tapped her backside lightly. She bit back a squeal and gave his ankle an undeservedly savage kick.
“Children, children; behave,” Amanda murmured, looking amused. Clearly, she hadn’t been fooled by any off-camera antics. “Charles and I have enjoyed seeing Susie – it’s been a tonic for us. We’re flattered that she wanted to confide in us and I hope we were of some help.”
“Yes, indeed,” Gray replied enthusiastically. “I can’t remember how many years it is since I’ve been plunged into a full-scale domestic crisis – other than my own medical emergencies, that is. I’d forgotten how oddly satisfying it can be.”
“When it works out well, that is,” Scarlet responded soberly. “I’m not sure this one will.”
Gray's face took on a serious cast. “I did my best to help Susie put this in perspective, Paul. I'm not sure how successful I was, however. She's still deeply upset and angry. I think you may have to be very patient with her for some time to come.”
“That's easier said than done,” Karen muttered.”It's like living with Mount Etna – you never know when it's going to erupt.”
Her mother laughed. “Perhaps it takes one volcano to recognise another,” she said lightly. “Where you were concerned, I always knew how long it would take for the lava to cool down. Susie will be fine, you'll see.”
They heard the roar of the Ferrari coming up the drive just after nine-thirty. It had taken Susie nearly three hours to complete a journey that would normally take less than half that time, but they had taken comfort in Amanda's assurances that she was at least well-equipped for the weather conditions.
Ace, seeing the headlights from his ringside seat by the bay window, leapt to his feet and headed for the front door, forestalling his father by inches. “I'll get this, Dad.”
“Let him,” Karen said quietly, coming to stand by Scarlet's side. “Don't leap in. Give her time.”
Grim-faced, he nevertheless obediently stood aside and waited as his son and daughter swapped places in the driver's seat of his beloved Ferrari. As her brother moved the vehicle to safely park it in the large garage at the back of the house, Susannah stalked up the stairs into the hall.
The bright lights hit her face, accenting her ashen pallor. She was trembling with cold and fatigue, but held her head up high, regardless. As she swept past her father, eyes focused straight ahead, Karen grabbed her arm. “Susie, are you all right?” she asked gently. “We've been so worried about you, honey; we didn't know where you'd gone till Mom called to let us know you were safe. Let me get you a hot drink – you need warming up.”
Susannah shrugged off the physical contact as if she'd been stung by a very angry bee. She gave her godmother an insolent stare. “Why are you still here?” she spat. “After what you've done, couldn't you at least have the decency to bugger off and leave us alone? You're no longer welcome in this house.”
Karen went white. Her hands flew to her mouth and she took a step backwards as if to shield herself from Susie's venom.
“That's enough!” Scarlet exploded, abandoning his resolution to keep his temper at all costs. He grabbed his daughter's wrist. “This is my home and I decide who is welcome, not you. Apologise immediately.”
Susannah wrenched her hand free. “Apologise to the whore?” she hissed back. “I'll see hell freeze over first.” With that, she made for the stairs, her back rigid with defiance.
Scarlet moved immediately to follow her, but Karen grabbed his arm. “Don't go after her,” she said quickly. “You'll only make matters worse. I don't think we should try to reason with her tonight. She needs time to cool off.”
“What's going on?” asked Ace, emerging from the garage via the utility room. “Have I missed the second act of the Metcalfe family panto?”
Scarlet didn't respond to his son's misplaced attempt at jocularity. All he felt was an overwhelming sense of helplessness as he realized he had no control over his grown-up children. He hadn't had for years. He stared blankly at the chaotically over-decorated Christmas tree that was already dropping pine needles on the polished wooden floor. For the first time in his life, he had no idea what to do about anything.
Karen stood beside him and laid a comforting hand on his arm. “At least she came home,” she told him gently. “We would have had a bigger problem if she hadn't.” When he remained silent, she turned to Ace and Freya. “I don't know how you two feel, but I'm exhausted,” she said. “I've had more than enough drama for one day. I'm going to bed; I could do with an early night.”
“I second that,” Ace replied cheerfully. He grabbed his girlfriend and hugged her to him. “It was bloody freezing in that garage. Come upstairs and warm me up, babe.”
Watching the two young people heading off to bed, their arms wrapped round each other, Scarlet sighed heavily. “Are relationships only ever easy when you're young?” he asked with a despairing shake of his head. “Why does it get so complicated later in life?”
“Because we have more baggage,” Karen said simply. “What they do pretty much only affects them. What we do affects everybody – or at least it seems that way.”
“But we can't allow it to, Karen. I will not seek Susie's permission to fall in love with someone other than her mother; nor will I put up with her outrageous behaviour when she discovers that's what has happened.”
“I'm not suggesting you should,” she replied. “But Charlie is right, Paul. To an extent, we're to blame for Susie's reaction here. We should have handled the whole thing differently.”
“What did he mean when he said he had experience of a similar situation – one that you knew about?” Scarlet asked curiously.
Karen went pink. “Oh, he was ever so gently reminding me of my reaction when I discovered he and my mother had embarked on an affair. It wasn't so far removed from Susie's, even though I was considerably older than she is now. It had been a couple of years since my dad had been killed, but I still believed she was betraying his memory. I acted like a spoilt brat; I was absolutely hateful to both her and Charles.”
“So he gave you a good talking to?”
She shook her head. “No, Adam did. He made me see that life goes on and that I had no right to expect my mother to spend the rest of hers as a grieving widow. Eventually, I saw sense and apologised to both of them. But the circumstances weren't so very different from today; if I hadn't had such a shock at finding them together, I probably wouldn't have thrown such a childish tantrum.”
“You walked in on your mother and the Colonel.... in bed?” Despite his sombre mood, Scarlet's mouth twitched in amusement.
“Not exactly, but it was pretty clear what was going on. God, I thought I was seeing things when he walked downstairs in his pyjamas....” As memories flooded back, Karen giggled at the recollection.
“Downstairs where?” Scarlet asked, sounding puzzled.
“My parents' ranch. My mom had invited him for Christmas – I suspect she was hoping it would nudge him into moving their friendship up a few notches. Neither of them expected to see me, but it just so happened that Spectrum was involved in a mission in the area. People had been hurt, killed. To cut a long story short, I pitched up at the ranch to ask for Mom's help with the walking wounded. I had no idea the colonel was there; we knew he was on leave, but he hadn't told anyone where he was going.”
“I can imagine what a shock it must have been,” Scarlet observed thoughtfully. “I vaguely remember a mission in Cedar Rapids one Christmas, and being at your mother's, but I don't recall the colonel in his pyjamas. Where was I when all this was going on?”
“Ah. Right. That would explain it, of course.” Scarlet's memories of missions frequently had large holes in them as a result of his chilling 'injuries'. Sometimes his colleagues filled in the gaps and sometimes they didn't.
“I think Charlie probably gave Susie the same lecture Adam gave me,” she said shrewdly. “Despite all the name-calling, she knows she's in the wrong; she wouldn't have come home otherwise. She just needs time to reflect on her behaviour.”
“I hope you're right,” he replied wearily. “I really can't handle any more of this. I'm completely worn out.”
“Then let's go to bed,” she replied, guiding him towards the stairs. “As Scarlett O'Hara so famously said, 'tomorrow is another day.'”
Scarlet lay awake listening to the soft, rhythmic breathing of his companion. Despite their mutual exhaustion, they had made slow, unhurried love, which had not satisfied either of them. Recognising that their hearts were not in it on this occasion, Karen had given him a quick consolatory kiss and promptly fallen asleep.
They no longer saw any need to conceal the fact that they were sharing a bed, although Karen had drawn the line at Scarlet's suggestion that tonight they should sleep in his own room, which happened to be next to that of his daughter. “Talk about fanning the flames,” she had muttered scathingly, throwing him a look of reproach.
There had been no sound from Susannah after her headlong dash upstairs. Scarlet presumed she was asleep, although Hollybank House was so soundly built noise did not travel easily between rooms. He was not faring so well himself. A restless sleeper at best, he didn't find the bed in this guest room to his liking. The mattress was too soft and the pillows too hard. He had insisted on blackout curtains in the master bedroom he'd shared with his wife, but Dianne, wanting a softer, more feminine feel, had chosen cream flowered silk for the windows in this particular room.
Eventually, when he'd had enough of the moonlight diffusing through the delicate fabric, he gave in. Clambering out of bed stealthily so as not to wake Karen, he pulled on jeans and a sweater. Perhaps a midnight raid on the whisky decanter would be enough to send him into the arms of Morpheus, he thought.
He crept slowly downstairs, trying to avoid known noise triggers like the floorboards on the third bottom step. He got to the living room and reached his arm round the door jamb to snap on the light, when a sudden movement registered in the corner of his eye.
Burglars on Christmas Eve? It wasn't unheard of. Sucking in his breath, he stepped forward, wishing he had a weapon other than his fists. Then he stopped dead in his tracks. The huge entertainment system on the wall above the fireplace was lit up by flickering images of places he recognised, people he knew. Dianne, bikini-clad, young and gorgeous with her glorious red hair flowing around her, raced across a beach in playful pursuit of her small daughter who was desperately clutching a beach ball in her arms. Her son, aged about eight, knelt on the sand, constructing an elaborate castle with an architectural skill he hadn't displayed since.
There was no sound to this footage and Scarlet knew there should have been. After all, he was the person who'd filmed this family holiday all those years ago. As his eyes adjusted to the gloom, he understood the reason why. Susie had switched the sound off, presumably in deference to the rest of the household.
Clad in her favourite 'Christmas' pyjamas, she sat cross-legged on the floor, the remote control in her hand. Over and over, she pressed rewind, taking the film back to the moment when Dianne finally caught her, grabbing her squealing, giggling little girl, pretending to be angry while pressing kisses on the child's cheeks and nose.
“Australia,” Scarlet said quietly, from the door. “Port Douglas, I think. Ace was seven or eight and you must have been about four. I'd forgotten we still had all this stuff.”
Susannah looked round, seemingly unsurprised at the interruption. Her face was tear-drenched. “I don't remember, Daddy,” she whispered. “I don't remember her like this. But I should, shouldn't I? Why can't I remember?”
Scarlet's heart rose up into his throat, threatening to choke him. He crossed the room and sat down on the floor beside his daughter. He put an arm round her shoulders, drawing her in. “You were just too young, Susie,” he said softly. “There are some things we can't remember even though we really want to.”
“She was so lovely, wasn't she?” Susannah's eyes were fixed on the screen, her hands still clenched round the remote. “I'll never be as beautiful as she was, or as clever. I'll never be any good at anything.”
“That's not true,” Scarlet said, at that moment not knowing if it was true or not. “You'll be you, Susie. You'll be who and what you were meant to be. That's what your mum and I always wanted for you and Ace. Be true to yourselves; forget anyone else's expectations.”
Susannah wiped her eyes, water still falling unchecked through her fingers. “I want her back,” she whispered. “I miss her so much.” Her voice broke on a sudden cry. “I want my mummy back! I want her back!”
“Oh, Susie.” Scarlet's face contorted in anguish as he pulled his daughter into his arms, cradling her sobbing body against him as he had done when she was a small child. She resisted his efforts to calm her, repeatedly punching him in the chest with the remote until eventually he removed it from her flailing fist and flung it into the fireplace. Then he simply held her tight and waited for the storm to subside.
After several minutes, Susie's crying had turned into uncontrollable hiccups. After he had endured the reverberation against his chest for long enough, Scarlet lifted his daughter's chestnut head. “Deep breath, hold it as long as you can,” he instructed firmly. “We'll do it together. Keep up the pattern till they go away. If it doesn't work, we'll try a glass of water.”
She obeyed, keeping her eyes fixed on him as together they held their breath in tandem. Inevitably, she broke first, not always successfully, but at last the hiccups were vanquished. “Better?” Scarlet asked at last, as her breathing returned to some semblance of normal. “Want water?”
She shook her head, managing a small smile as she fished in her pyjama pocket for a tissue.”I'm okay,” she muttered, blowing her nose noisily. “Thanks for the hiccups drill; I'd forgotten how you do that.”
“Usually works,” he replied, letting go of her. “Bit like childbirth; you have to breathe through it, but in reverse.”
“How the hell would you know?”
“I don't, but that's what your mother told me.”
Susannah carefully extricated herself from her father's arms and re-arranged her long body into a Buddha-like pose opposite him. She said, “Dad, why did Mum have to die?”
“Truthfully? I don't know,” Scarlet answered soberly. “Just the wrong place, the wrong time, it's usually how these things happen.”
“But... she threw herself across you; she tried to shield you. Why? If you'd been shot, it wouldn't have been fatal, would it? You'd have recovered.”
“Actually, no. I probably wouldn't,” he said quietly. “The gun that killed your mother was a special weapon that fires a high voltage electron charge. It was developed by Spectrum many years ago when we discovered that electricity is something that Mysterons are very vulnerable to. It can kill them and so, presumably, it can kill me too.”
“But you're not one of them.”
“No, but I have their genetic make-up, so there's every reason to suppose that what will kill them might kill me too.”
“Did Mum know that?”
“Of course she did.”
“So she sacrificed herself to save you.”
“It seems that way, although I'll never know if it was deliberate or not. But if I could have done anything to prevent it, I would have. Your mother was the most precious thing in the world to me. I'd gladly have laid down my life to save hers; and believe me, if I thought I could do anything – anything at all – to bring her back, I'd do it in a heartbeat.”
“If she was so precious to you, then how come you're cheating on her with someone she thought was her best friend? How can you do this, Dad?”
Scarlet got to his feet and padded barefoot to the drinks cabinet. Taking out a bottle of Glenlivet malt whisky, he poured two generous measures into crystal tumblers. Handing one to Susannah, he settled himself in a corner of the sofa and switched on the lamp on the small side table. “I'm too old to sit on the floor all night, even if you're not,” he said, patting the seat next to him. “Come up here.”
Susannah hesitated, then got to her feet and came to sit beside him. She sipped her drink and didn't resist when he put his arm round her.
“Susie, you're not a child anymore, so I won't treat you like one,” Scarlet said at last. “Perhaps it's time we had a proper adult conversation about things that maybe neither of us have wanted to face head on. Do you think we can do that without screaming and yelling at each other?”
When she nodded her confirmation, he smiled. “Okay. We'll give it a go. Let's start with your mum and me. It's hard to put into words how I feel about her, but I'll do my best. Quite simply, she was the love of my life. She did, and always will, occupy a place in my heart that no one else ever can. The day I married her was the best ever and the day she was killed was the worst. After she died, things just stopped. I don't mean literally,” he added as she gave him a puzzled look. “Obviously, everything went on around me as usual, but I didn't feel part of it. I just shut down: I was completely lost. The only emotion I could feel was anger- and hatred for those who'd caused the deaths of the people I loved so much.”
“Is that why you went back to Cloudbase immediately after the memorial service?” Susannah asked with barely concealed bitterness. “You didn't even hang around to talk to the well-wishers, let alone us; once you'd delivered Mum's valediction to the congregation, you were up and out of there without a backward glance.
Scarlet swallowed hard. “I just couldn't go through the motions anymore,” he said quietly. “I felt....well, toxic is the only word I can use. I didn't want to cause any more damage to the people around me so I thought it best to remove myself.”
At that, Susie sat up straight, slopping her whisky on the beige upholstery. Both of them ignored it. “Dad, what possible damage could you have done?” she said, her tone exasperated. “Our world had already collapsed; it couldn't have got any worse. Yet you just 'removed yourself', as you put it and left Ace and me to cope on our own.”
“That's not true,” Scarlet said defensively, withering under her scorn. “You were never left to cope on your own. There were people here all the time, I made sure of it. You had Granny Simms and Uncle Charlie and Amanda, as well as all the cousins and friends. The housekeeper was here; what's her name, Mrs Henson?”
Susannah shook her head in despair. “Hetherington,” she muttered. “Mrs Hetherington. Christ. She's been with us ten ruddy years and you can't even remember her name.”
“I'm better with faces, you know that,” he protested weakly. “Besides, your mother dealt with all that stuff. I just paid the bills and left the details to her.”
“Yeah. And when she was no longer here, you left all the details to us,” she flashed back at him. “Dad, did it never occur to you that you should have been here for us? That we needed you, at least as much as Spectrum does? Or were you too busy getting up close and personal with the Floozy of the Year?”
Scarlet picked up his glass, welcoming the warm hit of the whisky on the back of his throat. “Susie, we've all been cast adrift by everything that's happened,” he said slowly. “The problem seems to be that we've ended up on different life rafts headed in opposite directions; at least, that's how it feels to me. I know I haven't given you the support you needed and I'm truly sorry for that. But being here for you would have meant confronting the emotional reality of your mum's death and until recently I wasn't capable of doing that. I didn't want to accept the fact that she'd gone for good; any more than you do, Susie.”
Susannah gazed down at her drink, her vision blurred with tears. “I've been pretending she's just gone away for a while,” she confessed in a whisper. “I've been sending her messages, telling her what's been happening lately; asking her how she is and when she's coming back. And every morning, I open up my in-box, praying there'll be a reply; only of course, there never is. But I still think, maybe tomorrow it'll happen. It's so stupid, I know.”
Scarlet shook his head. “It's not stupid, love. I talk to your mum and Uncle Adam all the time – mostly in my head, I admit. But I've done some really irrational things, too. In my quarters on Cloudbase, I've still got a few bits and pieces that she left behind, including an almost full bottle of perfume that I'd bought for her birthday. Every night, I sprayed it on my sheets and pillows, even on the bathroom towels, so that in the morning, even if it was just for a few minutes, I would feel her presence. The cleaning staff probably thought I'd completely lost my mind.”
“Bet you raised a few eyebrows wandering around reeking of Chanel No 5,” Susie replied, with a sudden grin.
“I'm sure I did,” he replied with a chuckle. “But I was also hitting the bottle pretty hard back then, so maybe it was better than smelling like a distillery.”
“Dad, if you miss Mum so much, how come you and Aunt Karen are....together now? So soon after.....everything? I want to understand, but I don't.”
“Susie, I'm not sure that Karen and I completely understand it, either,” he admitted frankly. “Despite what you may think, this is not something that's been going on for years. It's come as a bolt out of the blue and we were pretty shocked ourselves at first. We never imagined our relationship would change and when it did, it scared the living daylights out of us. We asked ourselves the same questions about guilt and betrayal that you're asking now. But ultimately, we knew it felt right. It is right. We're taking care of each other and that's what your mum wanted. In fact, I think she......” his voice trailed off in sudden hesitation.
“You think she what?” Susannah asked, searching his face with curiosity.
“This will probably sound fanciful, but I feel as if she's actually pushed us together,” he said, with a slightly shame-faced smile. “When your mother died, I began having strange spells. I would get dizzy, sick, have blackouts. They were diagnosed as intense panic attacks, but I didn't believe that. I couldn't believe that anything so extreme didn't have a physical origin – or an alien one.”
“You thought it was the Mysterons?” she asked, wide-eyed.
“I didn't know. I wondered if it was an attempt to take me over again. If it was, I was scared they might be succeeding, because while these.... spells.... were happening, I couldn't control anything. I'm not used to that. I begged your mother to help me with every fibre of my being; something in my subconscious told me that she held the key and she knew what to do if only she could show me.”
“So what happened?” Susie was giving him her full attention now.
“Karen happened,” he said simply. “She seems to be able to reach inside of me and drag me back from wherever I've disappeared to. I don't know how she does it, but I'm profoundly grateful that she does. Since we've been together, my attacks have stopped. Maybe the medics were right and all I've been suffering from is all -too-human stress and anxiety brought on by extreme trauma. But I think your mother threw me a lifeline, Susie; a lifeline in the form of Karen. I believe that wherever they are, maybe she and Adam are listening and doing their best to help us move on with our lives.”
Susannah was silent, bleakly contemplating her empty glass. “I wish she'd send someone for me, then,” she said at last. “Ace has Freya, you have Aunt Karen..... who've I got? Just Marmalade. Next door's cat, eats here most days,” she added in response to her father's puzzled expression.
“The ginger thing I tripped over in the kitchen this morning? Oh, I see. That'll explain why there are a dozen cartons of 'Nine Lives' in the kitchen, I suppose.” He reached over and gathered her into his arms.”Susie, one day you'll have someone of your own, that special person who'll be there to ease your path through life. It will happen, sweetheart, even if it doesn't seem likely right now. In the meantime, you have me and Ace and all the people who love you. You're not alone, I promise you.”
“Do you love her? Aunt Karen, I mean? Are you going to marry her?”
Scarlet was startled. “I think it's way too soon to be talking about marriage, Suse,” he said slowly. “This is all very new. But yes, I do love her, very much. And it has nothing to do with how I feel about your mother or how Karen feels about Adam. We both understand that.”
Susannah gazed down at her fingertips, inspecting her manicured nails for chips in their painted perfection. “Well, I suppose we should all be grateful for small mercies,” she muttered. “At least you've gone for someone your own age. I'd rather deal with Aunt Karen than one of the flying musical cherubs. Some of them are not much older than me.
“Susie, it might come as a surprise to you, but while I may look young, in my head I'm feeling the full weight of my sixty-four years,” he replied with a grin. “I prefer women of my generation – I know what I'm dealing with.”
“You might not always, though,” she objected. “What if in the future I have a step-mother who's younger than me? What then?”
“I don't know. I don't think it's likely to happen, but if it does, I'm sure we'll find a way to deal with it.”
“Are you always going to look the way you do now?” she asked hesitantly. “I don't think you look much older than you did when I was a kid.”
“I'm not sure,” he admitted. “I may be ageing, just very slowly. No one seems to be clear about what my future will turn out to be.”
“It'll be kind of weird if I end up with a father who looks young enough to be my son,” she muttered.
“I rather think that's how your mother felt, too. It wasn't easy for her, or for me. Believe me, there are days when I'd give anything to just be the same as everyone else.”
“But then...you wouldn't be you, I suppose,” she answered. “Dad, I lied when I said I wished Uncle Adam had been my father. I'm glad you are, even on the days you behave like a total plonker.”
“And I'm glad you're my daughter, even on the days you behave like a complete witch,” he replied solemnly, giving her a bear hug. “But now that we've got that straight, maybe we should wrap it up for tonight. We both need to get some sleep to fortify us for Christmas Day.”
“Okay.” Susannah rose to her feet and put her empty glass on the table. Then she bent down and kissed him on the cheek. “Goodnight, Daddy. I love you.”
“I love you too, sweetheart. Sleep well.”
Scarlet woke surprisingly late on Christmas morning. The clock registered 9.30 and he could hear Karen humming cheerfully in the en-suite bathroom. He lay back against the pillows as last night's events came back to him.
After Susie had departed, he had switched off the lights and made his way up to bed. To his surprise, Karen was awake, sitting up in bed reading a magazine. She had been curious and eager to hear the details of his late night tryst with his daughter and disappointed when he'd confessed he was too exhausted to explain it all to her. He did however, tell her that he hoped hostilities had well and truly died down and so they’d eventually fallen asleep with their arms wrapped round each other, a sense of peace surrounding them both.
Waking up now, last night's disappointing lovemaking was merely a memory. Scarlet stretched in this bed he didn't really like and told himself changes might have to be made in the New Year. It was about time he renegotiated the terms of his contract with Spectrum, he thought. If the organisation was happy to continue making as much use of his unique abilities as they had always done, then they needed to start rewarding his exemplary service in a slightly different way. That meant allowing him the time to fulfil his responsibilities to his family and loved ones as well as to the world in general. He didn't believe that Brigadier Green would have any serious objection to this. Having brought up his younger brothers and sisters when they were orphaned at an early age, Seymour Griffiths understood only too well how hard a juggling act balancing work and family was to a single parent; he would just be surprised at how long it had taken his friend to realise it.
A single parent; that's me, Scarlet mused, recalling his conversation with Susannah in a sudden rush of amazement and tenderness. Maybe I need to focus on being a father as well as a soldier, he thought. It doesn't matter how old the kids are; they still seem to need Mum and Dad as much as they did when they were five.
Interrupting his reverie, Karen emerged from the bathroom, towelling her hair vigorously. “You look pretty chipper, considering it was the wee small hours when you came up to bed,” she observed with a smile.
“I can't believe how long I've slept,” he confessed, reaching his arms out to pull her into an embrace. “I'd like to say 'Merry Christmas' darling, but I don't really think anyone imagines it will be.”
“No; not this year, at least,” she replied soberly. “But maybe it will turn out better than we thought.” She straightened up with a sudden giggle at his attempts to pull open the towel she'd wrapped round herself. “Get lost, Colonel. No nookie this morning.” she said, slapping his wrist. “I have chores to do; a dinner to cook, because something tells me no one else will be doing it.”
“Okay.” Scarlet released her with a grin. “I'll settle for the next best thing. If you're headed for the kitchen, make me a cup of tea, will you? Yorkshire Gold, dash of milk, no sugar.”
“Jesus, what did your last slave die of?” she asked rhetorically, swapping the towel for a silk robe. She paid no attention to the fire in his eyes as he watched her. Pushing her feet into carpet slippers, she dragged a hairbrush through her damp blonde waves. As it came into contact with a particularly knotty tat of hair, the brush spun out of her hand and landed on the dressing table with a thud. Scarlet chuckled at her muttered curse. “Buy a wig, it'll be easier,” he suggested helpfully.
She glared at him. “It'll be tea with a dash of arsenic if you're not careful,” she warned, ignoring his snort of laughter as she strode to the bedroom door.
Once downstairs, she was surprised to find she was not the first up. Susannah, still in her pyjamas, was sitting at the kitchen table, a wooden spoon in her hand, staring into the depths of a large trifle dish. Karen hesitated at the door, wary of the reception she might get, despite what Scarlet had told her about his daughter's contrition. However, Susie looked up at her with nothing more than utter despair on her face. “I don't know where I've gone wrong,” she said helplessly. “I've had three goes at it and it's still not right.”
“What are you doing?” Karen asked, coming to peer at the bowl's contents. “Oh, you're making Pineapple Surprise! It's years since I did that.”
Susannah nodded her confirmation, surprised that the dish had been so instantly recognised. “I'm doing it for Dad,” she explained. “It's his favourite. He doesn't like Christmas pudding, so Mum always made this for him as an alternative – if he was home for Christmas, that is. But it doesn't taste right and I can't find the recipe to check where I've gone wrong.”
“It was originally my concoction and I passed it on to your mother, but she probably didn't write it down,” Karen replied, not wanting to say that a dish consisting of little more than whipped cream, yoghurt, tinned pineapple chunks and caramelised sugar did not require detailed instructions. She removed the spoon from Susie's hand and dipped it in the creamy mixture. “Tastes fine to me,” she pronounced, licking her lips. “I don't know what you think is different..... oh wait, maybe I do. Your mum used to put in a dash of amaretto to give it a bit of a kick. Is that what's missing?”
Susannah looked doubtful. “Amaretto? That's a liqueur, isn't it? I don't know if we have any.”
“I'll check the liquor cabinet,” Karen said, with a smile of reassurance. She returned triumphantly, holding aloft a bottle of amber liquid. “Ta-da! We've struck lucky.” Unscrewing the top, she poured a minute quantity into the mixture. “It's quite strong, so we don't need a lot and in any case, we don't want to make it too runny.”
Susie tested it gingerly and then gave a sigh of relief. “It's perfect,” she said happily. “Exactly as Mum made it. Thanks, Aunty Karen.”
“You're welcome,” Karen replied lightly. “I think it's time you stopped calling me 'aunty', though. You're making me feel very old.”
Susannah coloured and looked down at the floor. “I'm sorry I've been so horrible to you,” she said hesitantly. “I didn't mean all the things I said. I was acting like a spoilt kid, not a grown-up. Uncle Charlie said I should try not to stand in judgement so much; I guess he's right.”
“Oh, Susie. It's okay,” Karen replied, giving her an impulsive hug. “They were just words, honey; they don't matter. And maybe you weren't the only one acting childishly; I don't think your dad and I would have passed the responsible adults test in the last couple of days, either. I'm sorry that our thoughtlessness has hurt you so much.”
Susannah was silent for a moment, resting comfortably in the arms of the older woman. “I asked Dad if you guys were going to get married,” she said, lifting her head from Karen's shoulder. “He said it was a bit too soon to think about that.”
“Did he? Well, I guess he's right,” Karen replied thoughtfully. “But.... your dad knows I won't marry him, Susie.”
“Why ever not?” she asked, a look of faint indignation on her face. “What's wrong with him? Don't you love him?”
“Your father would be a 'catch' for any woman,” Karen said solemnly, amused at Susie's spirited defence of a father she had practically disowned twenty-four hours earlier. “And it's got nothing to do with how much I love him,” she continued. “It's just that....well, I'm still married to Adam, even if he's no longer here with me. It's all I ever wanted and it's more than enough for me. Your dad understands that, I think.”
They were interrupted by a plaintive voice from the door. “What happened to my tea?” asked Scarlet. Dressed only in slippers and a threadbare pair of jogging bottoms, he regarded them quizzically.
Karen looked stricken. “Oh, sweetie, I'm sorry. I completely forgot. Susie and I got caught up in making dessert for later on.”
“It's okay, I'll do it myself,” he replied good-naturedly, glancing from one to the other and drawing his own conclusions over the scene in front of him. He leaned over the table and stuck a finger in the trifle bowl. “Ooh, Pineapple Surprise,” he said enthusiastically, licking off the creamy mixture. “This is a turn up for the books.”
“Get your hands off it,” retorted his daughter, slapping his wrist. “And for God's sake put some clothes on. Wandering around half-naked like that; it's disgusting.”
“What's wrong with me?” he protested, an injured look on his face. “Can't I wear what I want in my own kitchen? It's not as if we're overlooked; well, only by that damned cat,” he added, with a glance out of the window to where Marmalade sat by the back door, impatiently waiting for his second breakfast of the day.
Susannah's response was forestalled by the sudden appearance of her brother and his girlfriend. “We thought we could smell coffee,” Ace said cheerfully, looking hopefully at the bubbling percolator. “Suse, you need to let Marmy in. He's been yowling under my bedroom window for ages. We had to get up; we couldn't stand it any longer.”
“He can probably smell the turkey,” Karen replied with a smile. “Either that or he just wants to come in from the cold.”
Scarlet's attention was caught by his son's appearance. Ace's outfit consisted only of a pair of red boxer shorts adorned with the saucy message, ‘Santa’s gift inside’. He looked at Susannah. “How come you're not having a go at him?” he asked. “He's wearing less than me.”
“It's different,” she replied, with a withering glance that suggested she thought this should be obvious. “He's young.”
“And buff,” added Freya, with a lascivious grin that suggested she had already opened 'Santa's gift'.
“So what am I, then?” Scarlet asked, puzzled.
“Old and decrepit,” his daughter replied promptly.
“Susie! That's awful!” Karen protested, smiling nevertheless.
Scarlet laughed and came to sling an arm round both of them. “No, it's not,” he said happily, dropping a kiss on each of their foreheads. “I actually think it's the nicest thing anyone's said to me in years. Now, will someone make me a cup of tea and feed that bloody cat while I haul my ancient carcass into the shower? It's about time we got on with celebrating Christmas.”
Back in 2005, when I first discovered the Spectrum Headquarters website, I had absolutely no idea what fan fiction was. Ten years on, I’m an enlightened participant in the fabulous Captain Scarlet fandom. The trigger for that was Marion Woods’ marvellous story, “Valediction”, written in 2005. I was so moved by it that I joined the forum (eventually) and sent her a message to say how much I’d enjoyed it. It was the start of a long-standing friendship that is deeply cherished.
I’d had a vague idea for a sequel to “Valediction” at the time, but didn’t think it was enough to make a story. I forgot about it for years, because I was more interested in writing New Captain Scarlet stories. Sometime near the end of 2013, the idea came back to me and I actually thought maybe I had enough material to write it. I discussed it with Marion who generously gave her permission and her blessing to use the canon characters as she’d developed them and her original characters as I saw fit. (She didn’t know what she was letting herself in for!)
It’s taken well over a year for this ‘tiny idea’ to grow into an albatross of more than 40,000 words. If I had known this in the beginning, I very much doubt I’d have even attempted it! But it’s finished at last and hopefully it will squeeze in before the end of the 2014 Christmas Challenge.
I’d like to thank Marion, not only for beta-reading this opus in super-quick time when she has more than enough on her plate, but also for her support, advice and suggestions for improving the narrative. Much of the story references events that have taken place in many of her stories, notably “Valediction”, “Ghost in the Machine”, “A Busman’s Holiday”, “The Danger Zone” “Amber Alert” and “Uisge Beatha”. For those who may not be familiar with those stories, I hope that the level of explanation provided in “What Remains” will be sufficient to make it plausible as a standalone tale. If it’s not, I can only apologise and urge you to acquaint or reacquaint yourselves with Marion’s marvellous writing; it’s an experience not to be missed!
While I promised her that I would remain faithful to her version of the Scarlet fiction universe, I must confess to making some small changes, such as the Metcalfe family’s move from Longwood Abbey to Hollybank House. She was gracious enough to accept that. Any other anomalies or deviations have been made quite unwittingly; this is the first Original Captain Scarlet story I have ever attempted and it may well be the last! It’s been quite tough to follow in the steps of writers who have explored his world with much more skill and imagination than I can summon up.
The usual thanks go to Chris for all the marvellous work she does in getting our scribbles out to a wider audience, and all those talented and creative people who have brightened up my world with the adventures of the little man in red.
If you’re still with me at this point, congratulations on making it to the end and I hope you enjoyed another of my kitchen-sink dramas.
With all good wishes for 2015,
23 January 2015
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