Maggie came in from the garden with an armful of flowers and a carefree smile on her lips. father then ruined her day.
“Mrs. Sinclair phoned, and wants you to baby sit tonight. They’ve got to go to an important meeting. You weren’t here, so I said OK on your behalf. That’ll give you a few quid in your pocket at the end of the night.”
“I don’t want to go,” Maggie snapped. “They’re a stuck up pair who wouldn’t give you the time of day. I didn’t even know they had a baby, and I don’t know how to look after one. Anyway, I promised to meet Jack tonight.”
“Your Jack can do without your company this evening,” her father said. “It won’t do him any harm to go twenty four hours without seeing you. You spend too much time with him as it is.”
“He’s very busy repairing the damage the last storm did to his chicken farm,” protested Maggie. “He needs all the help he can get.”
It ended, as she knew it would, with her trudging up the road past Churchyard walk. She was wearing faded jeans and a pale yellow blouse that had been washed many times, and looked it. The setting sun shone straight into her eyes.
“That’s great,” she grumbled, screwing up her eyes against the glare. A lazy Friesian swung its great head over the hedge to regard her with patient eyes. “Got to walk a whole mile with the sun in me eyes,” she informed the beast. “If the Sinclair woman criticizes my clothes by as much as a look, I’m going to turn right round and walk away. I haven’t got a dress for every occasion as she has.”
Still in a bad humour, she trudged up the drive to the Manor House and jabbed her thumb on the large brass doorbell. A few seconds later she raised her hand to give the bell another poke just as the heavy oak door swung open, and Paula Sinclair greeted Maggie with a brief smile. “Oh, yes. Maggie,Come to look after our babies.”
“Margaret, my name is Margaret,” she said. Only her friends and family called her Maggie, and the Sinclair’s would have to do an awful lot of work to come into that category.
“Of course. Margaret, sorry. Do come in.” She stood back to allow Maggie to enter. “Let me show you around so that you know where everything is.” Paula swept on ahead. “There’s the television. It’s not the latest model, that’s on order, of course. But I’m sure you’ll be happy with that. And here,” she sailed through a frosted glass door, “is the kitchen.” The place looked like a showroom for an electricity company. Gleaming appliances flung splinters of light into Maggie’s eyes. Electric mixers, electric whisks, electric blenders and tin openers abounded. There was even an electric wok.
“There’s the fridge,” Paula continued. “With food and drinks if you would like to help yourself. Tango and Cola, I believe they’re called. That’s what you young people drink, isn’t it? There’s a cocktail bar in the lounge, but you won’t need the key to that.”
‘Young people! What does she think I am? A child?’ thought Maggie indignantly, still dazzled by the hard white surfaces and gleaming chrome trimmings, ‘in a few more months I won’t even be a teenager.’
“Where’s the baby?” she asked, expecting to be escorted to a nursery complete with every piece of equipment that a baby could possibly need. “Babies?” she suddenly said. “There are two of them?”
“Oh, yes. Here they are.” Paula bent down and lifted something out of a basket under the table.
“They are pedigree King Charles Spaniels.” said Paula reproachfully. We’ve only just acquired them, and as they are so young, we don’t want to leave them alone in the house just yet.” She returned the puppies to their bed.
“Oh, isn’t she cute?” Maggie bent down to stroke one of the puppies. It wagged its minuscule tail and made a puddle in greeting.
“Oh, yes.” Paula gave a disapproving sniff. “The vet said she’d grow out of that. You can cope with that, can’t you? The cleaning things are under the sink. The one you are holding is Harvey, the other one is Nichols.”
Roger Sinclair, stiff and formal, appeared at the kitchen door.
“Ready?” he growled to his wife. “Taxi’s here.”
“We’re not taking the car,” Paula explained to Maggie. “One feels obliged to engage in social drinking at these functions, don’t you know? We wouldn’t like the police to stop Roger on the way home. They make such a fuss over a couple of cocktails.”
Roger leered at Maggie. “Are you sure you’ll be all right on your own?” he purred, taking her hand.
“Come on,” snapped Paula. She looked at Maggie and raised her carefully plucked eyebrows. “Men,” she sighed. “Coming, Roger.”
Maggie smiled back, feeling something in common with the tall blonde woman. Her Jack sometimes caused her to wonder why she put up with him.
Maggie regarded the puppies, which inspected her ankles for a moment, then retired to the basket and settled down for a nap.
“Well,” she said, “If that’s all you’re going to do, I think I’ll have a look around the place. I’ll just be careful not to touch anything, then no one will be any the wiser.”
She made her way up the wide thickly carpeted stairway to the bedrooms. Timidly she pushed open the first door and peered inside.
‘This must be what a burglar feels like,’ she thought. ‘Creeping into other people’s houses.’ She looked around. “My Goodness,” she breathed.
Gold and white decor dazzled her. `Opulent,’ a word she had seen in a magazine, described it all. A king sized bed with a pale cream cover dominated the room She tiptoed like a heron on a mud flat across to the dressing table with its illuminated mirror. The drawers were not locked. Gingerly she pulled the top one open.
Overwhelming temptation stared her in the face. “Just look at all that jewellery,” she gasped. “I’ve never seen so much.” Slowly she reached in and lifted out a pair of earrings. “Aren’t they gorgeous? I’d love to have these. I wonder if they’d notice if I sort of borrowed them? No,” she told herself sternly. “That would be stealing. Oh,” she sighed. “But they are beautiful.” She held the large emerald earrings to her ears and stared into the mirror. An oval face, framed by vibrant tawny hair stared back at her through eyes as deep and green as a woodland pool.
“Surely she wouldn’t miss just one pair, would she?” Maggie stared at the treasures that glittered up at her from the open drawer. “Not just one pair, surely?”
Slowly she closed the drawer and almost subconsciously, slipped the earrings into the pocket of her jeans.
The other side of the room was definitely male. Nothing of interest there, she decided. A photo of a young man in Army Officer’s uniform stood on the dressing table. On the back was written `Julian. 1971 – 2006′
“Must be their son,” she muttered. “Wonder where he died.” She knew that there was a war going on somewhere, and people getting killed. “Sad.”
She crept out of the glittering bedroom, careful not to make a noise as she closed the door, even though she knew there was no one else in the house.
‘It’s not fair,’ she thought, vainly trying to dismiss a stab of jealousy as it lodged in her mind. ‘These people have so much, and mum and dad have to work hard to make ends meet on the farm.’
The pups were still asleep when she returned to the kitchen, but woke up and enthusiastically greeted her with a great deal of tumbling around her feet. “I’m going to make a cup of tea, and see what’s in the fridge,” she told them. With a supply of sandwiches and a mug of tea beside her, she settled down to watch television.
Just after midnight the sound of a car on the gravel drive disturbed her. She hurried into the kitchen. “You O. K?” she whispered, kneeling down to stroke Fortnum and Mason’s silky ears. The earrings in her pocket pressed against her hip.
“Oh. God. I can’t take them,” she gasped. “It’s thieving, and I’m not a thief.” She stumbled upstairs and quickly replaced the earrings, being sure to put them exactly as she had found them.
By the time the Sinclair’s had let themselves in, Maggie was in the kitchen nursing the puppies, her conscience as clear as a bell.
“Have a nice time?” she asked.
Paula sagged against the door. “Absolutely ghastly” she giggled.
“Have you been paid yet?” Roger asked, patting Maggie’s shoulder.
“S’all taken care of,” slurred Paula, swaying to the small table by the front door. Maggie followed, managing to avoid Roger’s outstretched hand.
“Here you are, and thank you,” said Paula, handing Maggie an envelope and ushering her out into the night.
Standing in the drive in the glare of the intruder alert lamp, Maggie muttered to herself, “Well that was quick. Hello and goodbye.”
The light went out. “God, it’s dark. Where’s the moon when it’s needed? ” she complained. She made her way to the end of the drive, and felt the gravel give way to the smooth surface of the lane deep between the hedges. “It’ll take me ages to walk home in this dark. I should have bought a torch,” she rebuked herself.
A few yards down the road, she stopped. “I can hear footsteps,” she breathed. “Someone’s coming this way.”
She crouched in the hedge, and waited, holding her breath in case the mysterious walker heard her. ‘What if he’s a murderer,’ she thought. ‘Or a rapist.’ There had been no cases of rape or murder in the area as far as she could remember,
but under the circumstances that was the first thought that came to mind, as she pressed further back into the undergrowth.
The footsteps drew closer and stopped a few feet from her hiding place. A powerful torch pierced the darkness and swung this way and that, and finally focussed on the spot where Maggie crouched as terrified and as vulnerable as a rabbit caught in the headlights of a fast car.
“Thought I’d find you here,” rumbled a voice she knew so well.
“Jack,” she cried, relief flooding through her as she flung herself into his arms. “How did you know where to find me?”
“I went a-calling when you didn’t turn up this evening. Your dad told me where you were. I heard the taxi go through the village, and guessed you wouldn’t get a lift from the Sinclair’s, so I thought I’d come and see you safely home.” He planted a kiss on her nose. “Don’t want to loose you right now. There’s a lot of work to be done on the new chicken run. I need your help.”
“It’s nice to be wanted,” she said, clinging to his arm and skipping along as happy as Dorothy on her yellow brick road. ‘I’m not jealous of the Sinclair’s any more.’ The thought danced through her mind. ‘They’ve have a lot of nice things, but they’re not very happy. I’ve a caring family, a cosy home and the love of a wonderful man. What more could a girl want?’
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