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PASS THE CANDLE


By Sasha McCallum





Copyright 2018 Sasha McCallum

Smashwords Edition


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Table of Contents

Chapter 1. New Arrivals

Chapter 2. Beginning and End

Chapter 3. A Suggestion is Planted

Chapter 4. Mixed Messages

Chapter 5. Moving On

Chapter 6. Moment of Truth

About the Author

Connect with Sasha McCallum

Sample of The Arrangement


Chapter 1. New Arrivals

The house sat perched tall on the cliffs. A fifteenth century manor house aptly named Darkwater Hall, it was a large and imposing structure. To the east the cliffs dropped away sharply to meet a black-sand beach, a violent surf and the North Sea. To the west the property sloped gently down toward a gatehouse and the valley below, along which a little-used rural road stretched.

The occupants of the house were mostly content in their seclusion. The owner, an eccentric and wheelchair-bound 86 year old, Professor James Montgomery. The property was bequeathed to him by his parents, many years ago and he had lived a sedentary life there, writing books on metaphysics and epistemology as he built a great wealth of information around him -his library was immense and his concerns lay with knowledge, not money. On occasion he had guests come to stay, fellow academics who he enjoyed animated discussions with about everything from contemporary world politics to historical elements of human understanding. These interlocutor visitations had gradually dwindled over the past year, as his health declined.

With him lived Maryanne Blackbolt, a sturdy hardworking woman in her fifties who bustled about taking care of the large house, cooking and cleaning. Until four years ago she had been the only other occupant, but she had begun to struggle to take care of him with the progression of his illness and was advised to hire a private nurse for palliative care. Enter Cecilia Devos, their younger live-in companion and a breath of fresh air into an otherwise aging little circle. Cess was 25 and had been taking care of the professor for almost four years, having been hired straight out of nursing school. Blond hair and soft blue eyes, Cess was a perfect fit for the tenacious yet needy old man. She was benevolent, bright and very willing to learn from the Professor who needed a protégé as much as a nurse and felt a constant desire to carry her through to a higher level of intellectual understanding. From time to time she was lonely in her occupation and what it entailed, though her fondness and fierce loyalty to the man she affectionately referred to as PJ was obvious.

A grounds man, John Worth also lived on the property at the gatehouse and did most of the heavier jobs required in the main Hall.

It had drizzled gloomily all through September on a daily basis and although there were dry spells during those long autumn weeks, the ground was becoming perpetually soggy by the end of the month. On the first of October, a Monday, the rain had started and not stopped. If anything, it had gained momentum in its relentless attack. Thunderstorms struck intermittently and the phone lines and wifi went dead. This had happened before and none of the inhabitants were particularly bothered by it; they occupied their time with indoor activities and watched the storms raging beyond the cliffs out to sea and in the valley below.

At first light on Thursday morning, Maryanne Blackbolt was in the kitchen drinking her coffee and wondering why she had not seen John for two days. She would have to make her way down to the gatehouse later to check on him. Perhaps he'd had a fall and, with the phones out, couldn't call for help. She had always been a pessimistic person, jumping to worst case scenarios whenever plausible. Although John was a private, quiet man and often downright unfriendly, Maryanne was fond of him and didn't like the idea he was in trouble.

A loud and entirely unexpected knock at the front door interrupted her mystic musings and she slopped her coffee down the front of her shirt in surprise. The house got few visitors and the routine deliveries were made to the service entrance. She wiped at the front of her blouse with a dish cloth, left the kitchen and made her way to the door feeling a mixture of anxiety and anticipation.

"Hello," a dripping, very young and worried looking man said to her with a bow of his head, when she swung the door open. She raised her eyebrows. "I'm so sorry to disturb you at such an early hour. I rather thought you might have a phone I could use..." He paused and looked thoroughly disoriented as thick globules of rainwater ran from his sodden hair into his eyes and he attempted to blink them away. Maryanne studied him; he appeared harmless, possibly even frightened of her. She decided quickly that he needed help and a cup of coffee and that he was welcome to it - he had a kind face. She opened the door wide and stepped back.

"Come in, young man. Wipe your feet on the mat." When he stepped inside gratefully, Maryanne spotted a beat-up little Toyota parked modestly in a corner of the large courtyard. She shut the door and turned to the young man. Boy almost, she thought to herself and she observed his still nervous face. "Follow me." She led the way back to the kitchen.

"Thank you," he said as he sat down at the kitchen table and began fidgeting. "The thing is I was driving through the valley below late last night and ran into some flooding just south of here. The road is washed out."

"Yes," Maryanne nodded and pushed a cup of coffee across the table towards him. "It happens sometimes though the rain hasn't been this persistent for a long time. The inlet overflows," she explained.

"Well, I saw the buildings up here from the road and since this is the first sign of life I've seen for miles I thought it best to stop for the night and check if anyone was here this morning. I slept in my car. But now that I'm here, I'm not sure what it is I'm asking for."

Maryanne found his little lost boy face both pitiable and amusing.

"I can't get any further along the road and I'm worried about trying to go back the way I came. The road was pretty bad back there too in some places and now it's got another six hours of rain on it..." He trailed off. "Thank you for the coffee, anyway. It is most welcome."

"The phone lines are down," Maryanne informed him. "But even if they weren't I doubt you could get anyone out here. The council will clear the roads and have the lines up again as soon as the weather permits. You should stop here until the flooding recedes. That car of yours looks like its seen better days. Car like that will shut down easy if it gets water in the engine."

"Yes, I know," he agreed. "But I don't want to be an imposition."

"It is no imposition and you don't have much choice. Who knows how long the rain could last and you don't want to stay in your car, do you? I wouldn't hear of it. There are only three of us in the house and none of them would want to leave you high and dry," she smiled, recognising the pun as she said it. "There's plenty of room and food. You look like you could use a meal and a bath."

"If you are sure..."

"Yes! Be nice to have a fresh face amongst our lonely ranks for a bit."

"I don't have much money but I can make myself useful. My name's Lachlan Myer."

"Lovely to meet you Lachlan," she said as she shook his outstretched hand with a smile. "I'm Maryanne, I'm mostly just the housekeeper here but I'll introduce you to the Professor when he wakes up. He owns the house but he's a nice old chap. In the meantime, drink your coffee and I'll show you around."

They chatted and Maryanne found herself warming to the boy. He was just passing through his way to the small village of Forrester where he grew up. He usually took State Highway 58 or 301 but this year there had been reports of accidents and hold ups on both, so he found an alternative route.

"Unfortunately this was probably your poorest choice of road under the conditions," she told him. He had a small overnight bag in the car and she told him to fetch it and showed him a room. He was clearly uncomfortable and hesitant to accept Maryanne's offer but it was also true, as she told him, that the flooding would prevent further travel for at least one night, so he might as well make himself at home for a while.

"Thank you, Maryanne. I'd like to be helpful, if there is anything around the house you'd like me to do?"

"Perhaps," Maryanne mused. "But it's still not eight yet. You should settle first, freshen up. Take a few minutes or however long you need. It can't be pleasant to sleep in a car. Come down when you're ready. You can have a bite to eat then and meet the others. Don't worry yourself, there will be no problem with you being here. Maybe after that I could find something for you to do, if you're still keen."

"Absolutely," he nodded at her again as she headed back down the stairs.

A lovely boy, she thought, Cess will like him, as will the Professor. She smiled to herself and began preparing breakfast in her kitchen.

Later that morning Lachlan busied himself in the sheds off the West wing; he was chopping wood, seemingly a lot more content to have something to occupy his time. Maryanne had him pegged - he was one of those types who did not like his hands being idle, especially when he was in a situation where he felt he was receiving unjust help. The Professor and Cess met him and warmed to his nervous charm which seemed to relax him.

When a second unexpected knock on their doors sounded later that day, it was the Professor who arrived at the front entrance first and saw the damp but attractive couple standing at the door. He swung the door open awkwardly from his sitting position; the pair, who had obviously been bickering turned and observed him sitting in his wheelchair, well-dressed and well-mannered. He had equally taken in their appearances. His new arrivals saw a white haired, sophisticated old gentleman who harboured a twinkle in his eye, as if amused by some private joke or another. The Professor saw a young pair, probably socialite types who cared little for his kind of interests. The male wore an expensive suit, quite inappropriate for driving. Likely a business-man, with straight posture, handsome face, thick black hair and a superior expression, despite the circumstances that had brought him here. The woman was younger and far more striking in her appearance in the Professors opinion, possibly because she seemed more clued in to her surroundings and to the man in front of her. She had long, straight hair falling down to her waist, fine, arched eyebrows and almost yellow eyes which held an intensity that reminded him of Cess. Why he thought this he didn't know, Cess's eyes were a deep shade of blue, nothing like this woman's. Perhaps it was the wisdom, the understanding, contained in them they had in common. While the male seemed to demand things with his expression the woman exuded an apology, even embarrassment from hers.

"Good afternoon, sir!" the man said obnoxiously, bending down and holding out his hand to the Professor who took it but whose eyes remained on the more interesting and unobtrusive of the two. She peered back at him, a half-smile on her refined and quite lovely features, behind which lay a deep sadness the old man recognised. "Richard Northcote," the man continued. "This is my wife, Sky. We seem to have got ourselves in a bit of a lurch down there on the road."

"Professor James Montgomery," PJ said extending his hand to the female companion. "My nurse calls me PJ and the name seems to have stuck so you may call me that." He smiled at the woman and did his best to ignore the man named Richard. "You are the second unexpected knock we've had today." He observed the large, expensive four-wheel drive in the courtyard and figured it was the reason they had got as far as they did.

"The road is flooded up ahead," the man explained. "I attempted to drive back the way we came but a branch had fallen across the road since. Cursed weather."

"Please, you are welcome to stop here until the rains recede. However, our phone lines are down so I cannot offer you much more than food and shelter."

"Ah, fabulous! You see, honey, what did I tell you? The generosity of country folks," Richard commented as his wife peered around the lobby area of the house with interest. "I can pay you for your help, of course. Money is not an issue."

PJ inwardly rolled his eyes. He's one of those types.

"Nonsense. There is plenty of room and we have supplies to feed the five thousand." He turned from them and called into the depths of the house. "Maryanne!" He looked back and lowered his voice. "Maryanne is the housekeeper, she can bring you to one of the upstairs bedrooms. Do you have any overnight things?"

"Well, yes. But perhaps we won't be needing them. I could go back down and assess the situation again, see if I can't put my back into clearing the branches."

Foolish man, thought PJ with a polite smile.

"Of course, you may try. But at this point I believe the branches will be the least of your problems. The rain shows no sign of letting up and it may be a couple of days before the flood waters clear, and that is being optimistic. Frankly I am surprised anyone managed to get this far."

"It is very kind of you to be so hospitable," the woman finally spoke. She had an Irish lilt to her accent which PJ found endearing. "I tried to tell Richard we should stop at the last town."

"Yes. Of course, it is all my fault," Richard said acerbically and grinned at PJ. His smile did not reach his eyes and PJ's immediate dislike intensified. "But yes, we are grateful. I will go down and check the road again, in the meantime, I suppose we are stuck here. I'll fetch our bags." He turned and exited the front door again and PJ smiled lightly at the woman.

"Where were you two heading?"

"A hotel venue just outside of Richwood. We're supposed to attend a wedding tomorrow afternoon."

"Make yourselves comfortable here," PJ nodded. "Tomorrows engagement probably will not happen. The last time the rain was close to this persistent, the roads were closed for a whole week." Sky Northcote looked worried by this news and he tried to reassure her. "Not to worry, we do not have guests often, it will be an honour."

"There are traffic warnings out on all State Highways, presumably because of the weather. So Richard found these back roads as an alternative."

"Yes. We got a similar story from the young man who arrived earlier this morning. Pleasant fellow."

"Based on the state of the route we travelled the past couple of hours, we will be the last of your wayward visitors." She smiled sheepishly and stared around her. "This house is absolutely beautiful. I was quite awestruck driving through the valley and I noticed..." Her voice trailed off and her eyes widened as her attention was caught and PJ followed her gaze to the spiral staircase where he saw Cess descending. Cess stopped briefly when she spotted their new arrival before she remembered to put one foot in front of the other again. The old man narrowed his keen eyes in interest at their reactions to each other. Perhaps he had been more right about their eyes than he knew - his intuition about people was generally spot on.

"Ah," he said and held out his hand to Cess who grasped it as she approached. "Here she is."

"Another straggler, PJ? What luck," she said, her eyes still focused on the other woman.

"Yes, another straggler to our welcome doors. This is Sky Northcote." He watched as Sky wrapped her hand around Cess's and shook it as if in slow motion. "Sky, meet my personal guardian angel, Cecilia Devos."

"I'm PJ's nurse," she said. "Call me Cess."

The door opened abruptly and Richard bustled in, noisily struggling with two bags and an umbrella and PJ watched as the two women let go of each other and turned toward him.

"This is my husband, Richard," Sky said quietly. And it did not go unnoticed by PJ that Cess's face fell slightly and he smiled to himself; he had never seen her have quite such a strong reaction to anything before and it comforted him in a way he didn't grasp yet, to know she was capable of such feelings.

It also did not go unnoticed by anyone in the lobby that day that Richard himself took Cess's hand lingeringly and looked her up and down with appreciation.

"Maybe it won't be such a tragedy to be trapped here for a night." He laughed it off but it was not a joke and Cess, who felt an immediate connection with Sky Northcote, was annoyed at the inference being made so explicitly in front of his wife. She checked the golden eyed women's face again which was busy inspecting the lobby surroundings; Cess couldn't help wondering what kind of marriage they maintained.

"Where is Maryanne?" PJ asked. "She can show them to the East wing bedroom."

"I'll take them," Cess offered. "She's probably occupied in the kitchen or outside with Lachlan. Seems to enjoy his company."

"Maryanne will have some lunch ready by two. I'm a tardy riser so we eat late in this house. I will tell her to set an extra two places, it won't be a problem and I'm sure you are hungry."

The visitors accepted the offer and lunch was stimulating, Maryanne bustled in and out of the dining room and eventually settled to eat with them.

"So, Lachlan?" PJ began. "What do you do for a living?"

"I wait tables at a restaurant in Bedford." He looked a little embarrassed by this. "I never had the money or the brains to get a higher education."

"Know thy limitations, I think," PJ said, noticing Richard smirking into his soup and Sky's reserve as she ate - she appeared to be overtaken by coyness. "As long as you enjoy it."

"I do, actually. I don't make much money but nor do I find it too stressful and I like using my hands and keeping people happy," Lachlan continued.

"Mores been done around here in the past few hours than for weeks," Maryanne said.

"I'm ill at ease taking advantage of your hospitality this way. I want to make myself useful."

"It's nice to have someone to drink coffee with." The housekeeper turned to the boy with a smile. "PJ and Cess are strictly tea drinkers."

"Maryanne is addicted to coffee," PJ laughed.

"So, Professor," Richard began, his voice too loud for the so-far subdued conversation. "What ails you that requires you to keep a live-in nurse?"

"Richard!" Sky finally opened her mouth. "That really is not your business."

"It is alright, Sky. I have no real difficulty speaking about my prognosis," he assured her and she bent down toward her plate again, still looking more than a little ashamed by her husband's forwardness.

PJ went on to describe his health and condition, his physical decline and future prospects to his dashing and daring guest genially. Cess piped in to support her patient with anecdotes and lighten the mood. To which PJ observed Sky's occasional smile as she listened and ate in silence.

When Maryanne and Cess took their plates away PJ turned to his guests.

"Well, you three, there is not much to do here, but I can show you to the library. I've spent my life building it, there is something for everyone. What say you?"

"I think I'll sit it out, I'd like to go back down to the road," Richard said.

"Would you mind if I come? If something can be done, four hands would be better than two," Lachlan offered.

"Quite right," came Richards's response.

"I would love to see your library, Professor."

"Sky! Excellent. Just you and I then," he smiled. "Follow me."

When he showed her into his enormous library he was surprised and pleased by how wonderstruck she actually was. He'd had a sneaking suspicion that she had taken him up on his offer to be polite and make up for the others declining, but she was genuinely enthralled, and began to paw over his collection of first edition classics as he chatted to her about his sources and some of the books histories. Cess joined them some time later.

"It appears our striking guest is something of a reader," he said to her. "Who would have guessed?"

"PJ's library is second to none. Any book enthusiast is encouraged."

"I can't tell you how many times I used to read some of these when I was young. To see first editions of the titles is really something." Cess's presence in the library was making her more than a little shy, as it had at lunch. Such a strange place to find a woman like her, she pondered. She continued inspecting the shelves around her to keep herself from saying anything silly.

It was special - PJ's collection. She had always liked to read but had never seen copies like this; for her it had been the content of the writing that meant the most, not the packaging. To see works held in such reverence, such esteem as this was highly impressive.

"Oh my God!" Sky exclaimed suddenly and PJ and Cess turned to look at her in surprise. She pulled a book from the shelf she'd been studying and brought it over to the desk PJ sat at. She held it up with a grin and Cess noticed for the first time how delectable her smile was when it was plenary. "You're that James Montgomery. You wrote this?"

"I did," PJ confirmed.

"I read this years ago. I didn't recognise the name. Wow, I can't believe this is you. I thought this book was brilliant, revolutionary. Now I want to re-read it - I'm sure I had a lot of questions to ask back then but they're not fresh in my head anymore."

PJ chuckled, brimming with pride. Sky was full of surprises.

"It is a real credit to meet you, Professor."

"And an equal one to know you appreciate my work," he responded, bowing his head in modesty.

"Your theories on the longevity of consciousness are mind boggling. You put Sartre to shame."

"PJ is good at saying what is, not what isn't," Cess volunteered with a smile and Sky's heart started pounding.

"You understand his work?" she asked, feeling quite out of her depth.

"Some of it." Cess let out a peel of laughter and Sky was warmed to the core. "I'm surprised you've read his books as well," she added.

"Cess is an intellectual at heart," PJ said. "It didn't take me long to realise that."

"Is she?" Sky said and PJ watched as their eyes met yet again.

"PJ can't help himself, he has to teach constantly. He's opened my eyes to a lot of things I would never have known."

"She's a patient learner and a quick mind. A unique combination. You're wasted in the nursing profession, my dear."

"Work is work," Cess laughed.

"Young people now have a much better understanding of existentialism than they did in my day. It comes naturally to you, you grew up with it from media and movies."

"You can't dismiss your own role in that understanding," Sky said. "Your books must have influenced so many."

"Thank you, Sky. You flatter me. But I believe it is so much more with you Millennials. It's as if with every progressive generation you recognise better how close you are to your own demise," he pondered.

"We are constantly reminded of it in the news," Cess said.

"Yes," Sky nodded toward the rain hammering on the East windows. "And these adverse weather patterns, for example. Climate change is nipping at our toes. Who knows how bad it could get and how quickly?"

"Doubtless," PJ agreed. "As grisly as it sounds, I feel honoured to have lasted long enough to see its dawn on the eve of my own departure." PJ glanced at the two women. It would be them who would suffer the consequences through their lives. He would leave Cess with as many resources as he could in order to cope with whatever the future might hold, that would be his legacy to her.

They sat together in the library most of the afternoon. PJ discussed his books and Sky asked him a multitude of questions. As the day wore on she unwound, opening up decidedly. PJ suspected it was not himself which had made her reticent to begin with, but Cess. It was very obvious to him, even if they themselves didn't realise it yet; these two women were two sides of the same coin.

Richard and Lachlan returned from their foray to the valley, grumbling to themselves. The news was grim, as expected and they were forced to admit defeat and resign themselves to at least a night at Darkwater.

Later, as he talked to Richard at the dinner table, PJ's eyes strayed to his conversation partner's wife. After spending the afternoon with him, Sky and Cess continued to talk tacitly - far more relaxed with each other now. Their dismissal of the rest of the room was apparent at times; their eyes locked together often and their facial expressions, hushed discourse and flirtatious body language went largely unnoticed by the rest of the table, and entirely unnoticed by Richard who apparently had no interest in anyone other than himself. Especially not his wife, PJ thought as his eyes flicked between the handsome, self-involved man talking at him and the lovely woman enraptured with his own nurse. The two women's attention from each other was diverted at intervals, only briefly and reluctantly.

PJ's eyes twinkled and a plan began to develop in his sometimes devious mind.

Sky lay in bed listening to Richard snore beside her late that night. She was wide awake with little prospect of sleep finding her. The wind howled through the eaves outside and the rain whipped against the windows and it barely registered. To be in this house and surrounded by these strange circumstances and compelling people was not an unhappy calamity for her - it was a revelation. But, predominantly, one face flashed through her mind, one voice, as she stared at the violent light refracting from the window on the wood panelled wall. Cecilia Devos. Cess. Sky had never in her life felt such an attraction to a total stranger. Well, not a stranger anymore but... The moment she saw her coming down those stairs, her long legs, her gorgeous blond curls tied back from her face and ending in tight ringlets; her pink, pouting mouth and piercing blue eyes circled with rings of dark eye liner. Just thinking about that moment made her heart race. She wondered if it had been noticeable to anyone else that the earth had stopped spinning for her and infinity had rushed out to drench any sense of reality. And then she had taken her hand and Sky's breath had caught as she stared at that face. She would always have that moment, would always be able to go back to it. The moment that was shattered when Richard - noisy, horrible Richard - had come back in and reality resurrected itself. As usual with a beautiful woman, Richard had ogled and, for the first time in years, it had bothered Sky. The truth of it reared its ugly head; she's mine, had been the thought pounding in her head at the time. But of course, that was ridiculous. Cess is free. Smart woman. And I'm not. She had discovered that at least, during their dinner conversation. As surreptitiously as possible she had commented on Cess's lack of a ring and asked about a relationship. Cess had laughed, that beautiful laugh with those full lips and perfect teeth, and informed her she was only in a position to have one with her hand to which Sky had felt her jaw drop slightly. To be that hand.

Sky was shocked to find herself imagining the beautiful blonde touching herself in her own room. If she had been able to get Cess's naked image out of her head for more than a few seconds she may have been disgusted with herself. Her thoughts were bringing her to such a state that she was sorely tempted to masturbate herself with her husband asleep inches away, and found her fingers plucking unconsciously at her nipples several times. What is happening to me? Was her sexual frustration really this paramount?

The thoughts repeated themselves during the sleepless night as she tossed and turned and kept as far to her side of the bed as humanly possible. The occasional accidental brush against Richard made her flinch in aversion - as it had for weeks on end now. Sky was tired at daybreak but the night had gone relatively quickly and she couldn't say she hadn't enjoyed her flesh-filled fantasies. She rose at first light, and wandered the halls of the beautiful old house.


Chapter 2. Beginning and End


If Cess coming down the stairs at that moment yesterday hadn't distracted her, it would have been the house that Sky was most enthralled by. Even without entering through any closed doors, she felt like an unruly, animated child exploring its depths.

Staring around her in fascination at the paintings on the wall, she literally bumped into Cess exiting a bathroom wrapped only in a towel. So much for being temporarily focused on the house.

"I'm so sorry," Sky said hastily and felt a deep blush spread over her cheeks as she observed the other woman's semi-nakedness and smelt the fresh shower scent coming off her.

"It's okay," Cess laughed. "My bad."

"No," Sky stammered. "I was distracted looking at the paintings."

"They're nice, huh?"

"Uh... Yes, I..." Sky couldn't stop looking at Cess; she was ravishing. Good God.

"Sorry for the state of undress, I usually don't have to worry about running into anyone else up here so early in the morning," she explained. "I better go make myself decent."

And Sky watched, almost agape as she disappeared through a nearby door. That must be her bedroom. Sky couldn't help taking particular notice of this. It felt creepy but she flew high to know where Cess was in the house at night. Still in a state of embarrassment at the encounter, and certain that it would only serve to fuel her fantasies further, she made her way down to the kitchen and found Maryanne drinking coffee. Glad to have her mind on something else, she offered to help with breakfast.

"Now that is shocking! A guest and everything."

"An uninvited guest," Sky pointed out.

"It is my job!" Maryanne said with a smile. "You are so like Cess."

"Oh?" It seemed Sky could not get away from the curvy blonde, even in her absence.

"When she first arrived here, I knew she was different from the others straight away. She didn't mind lending me a hand when she was unoccupied. The other nurses before her, thought that they were above it. But Cess is one of those rare types who sees everyone as equal, whether above or below her. Lachlan is different," Maryanne judged. "He likes helping because he has an inferiority complex." She giggled. "Sweet boy. In any case, I would be glad of the help, thank you, Sky. Such an unusual name. Am I correct in thinking you've spent time in Ireland?"

"I was born there. We moved to Colchester when I was only twelve, but it's one of those accents that's hard to shake."

"And why would you want to? It is very charming."

Sky felt warm again. This place was growing on her rapidly, everyone was so nice. Richard had begun to make fun of her accent sometimes in front of his friends. The past few months it had got worse; he tried to brush it off as simple teasing but it had become more than that and it hurt. She didn't mention this to Maryanne as she assisted with breakfast, she had an inkling the housekeeper would not approve of Richard treating his wife that way. She did not want to be caught in the middle of anything. He was her husband after all.

*

Saturday evening arrived and the road was still blocked. According to Richard, who had been down several times over the past two days to investigate, its state was getting gradually worse. PJ could have told him that himself, the storm had not eased and the excessive wind would have only loosened more branches and strewn them over the road. He had known the area since he was a child and he was not a fool. Richard, however, was restless. Even if he wasn't continually complaining and criticising, PJ would have been able to sense the mounting frustration within him at being trapped here with little to no entertainment and not a single person he could manipulate successfully - everyone here could see right through the handsome and spoilt man, including his own wife. PJ had observed their interactions with each other, having witnessed one particularly disturbing scene without being noticed. He wondered if someone should ask if they would prefer separate rooms. Whatever the case, his plan was subtle and he was a patient man even if the others weren't.

And so the household is full again, the Professor thought to himself. And a hierarchy of sorts has begun. Lachlan spent time helping Maryanne. Richard borrowed a parker and wellingtons and went for sodden tramps around the property, exploring - 'For want of anything better to do' as he put it insolently. Sky joined PJ and Cess in the library often. She shared in their conversations about existence and consciousness, her thirst for understanding almost equal to that of Cess's. She had easily gained his approval - her eyes were open, while her husbands remained closed. She seemed to be enjoying the unplanned vacation and was welcome in their tight little circle.

PJ leaned his frail body into the cushioning of his chair and puffed intermittently on his pipe. His clear blue eyes narrowed as he peered through the cloud of vapour at the variety of younger faces dotted in their own chairs around the spacious recreational area of the huge, old house. These would easily be his last few weeks on earth, and that the divine had chosen to grace him with one final bout of teasingly young entertainment was something he could raise his glass to in arthritic appreciation. His more advanced years gave him a relatively detached view of his fellow house guests; he could therefore see them all better for what they really were, unhampered by any personal motives, sexual or otherwise. Although, that wasn't entirely true, he thought to himself. He had a very personal motive now that he had seen what was happening between his nurse and his female guest.

He looked affectionately at the woman he had come to think of as his granddaughter. If he had ever been interested in getting married and having children, he would have liked to think they may have turned out like Cess. When she first arrived, he didn't know she would come to mean so much; he had assumed she would be as the others were, selfish, and largely unwilling to stick it out with the terminal but stubborn and laser-eyed old man. They didn't like that he could see them for what they really were, and he didn't like what they really were. When Cecilia arrived he tried all the same tricks but she hadn't responded to them, she had compassion and acuity unlike the others, and she was willing to put them both into the task of nursing him. He could clearly see that this was both a blessing and a curse for a woman in her position. She had melted his heart and he knew it would be her who would be there when he died. And that she would cry over him and do everything he asked. She had made his last few years worthwhile and sometimes all he wanted was to tell her that she would be okay in the future, that she could forget about the things he knew worried her; money, work, where she would live when she left here. But he had taken great pains to hide his intentions from her. Soon, very soon, she would understand; he would die content in the knowledge that she was safe and his memory would live on through her. And now it appeared as if he were being given an opportunity to do more for Cess than he had ever anticipated - the opportunity to help her toward emotional fulfilment. This was miraculous, and he would certainly not waste the chance; though whether his plan would fall into place was a last and intriguing mystery for the old man to mull over.

"Richard," Maryanne began, who had joined them for the evening and sat in an armchair close to Lachlan. "There is something I must ask about."

"Yes, my good woman." Richard was knocking back the brandy at an alarming speed. PJ did not know since when he had been drinking but he had been flushed and jolly all through dinner that night. "What can I do for you?"

Maryanne had expressed little more than vitriol for Richard and had kept her distance from the man thus far, and PJ suspected she could see he was in no state to be asking serious things from so whatever it was must be of great importance to her. He was curious himself now and listened attentively.

"In your walks around the property have you seen any other people? Or anything that could be described as amiss?"

"Not a single soul other than those here in this room. And that, as far as I'm concerned, is the something amiss you speak of!" He giggled then straightened his expression. "What concerns you, my dear?"

PJ saw Sky sink further into her seat and Lachlan roll his eyes slightly. Maryanne, apparently recognising she would not be getting any sense out of Richard, turned to the Professor with a worried expression.

"I didn't want to bring it up because it may be nothing," she said to him. "But..."

"Lay it on us, Maryanne."

"I haven't seen John since Tuesday. Has anyone else seen him?"

"No," Cess volunteered at the same time PJ shook his head slowly, the fact only now hitting him. Yes, John had been missing in action for a prolonged length of time. All the unusual activity in the house had distracted him from making this observation earlier. Cess continued with concern. "Since Tuesday? Are you sure?"

"Absolutely. He brought a load of logs up and piled them in the sheds. I haven't seen him since."

"Who is John?" Richard slurred, drowning out the same question from Sky.

"John Worth is the grounds man, he lives in the gatehouse. He is probably staying inside out of the damp. Still, it is strange that he hasn't checked in for so long," PJ mused.

"He isn't home. I don't think he's been there for days. I trudged down on Thursday to make sure nothing was wrong and it was deserted. The same this afternoon."

"Did you check the other gate buildings?"

"Yes. His Land Rover is still there. And the quad runner. I'm a little worried. I don't suppose he mentioned going anywhere to you, Cess?"

"No. But he wouldn't tell me if he was. I know he goes hunting north of here sometimes. With these storms, maybe he's camped out on high ground for a while?"

"Hmm, possible. But he might be in trouble."

"If he is, there is nothing we can do until the roads reopen and the phones come back on," PJ rationalised. "At least we know he hasn't rolled the quad; he's less likely to be dead if he's on foot."

"True," Maryanne agreed.

"If anyone goes out tomorrow just keep an eye open." He looked pointedly at Richard who gave him a bloodshot grin.

"I cannot promise anything, but I try to open an eye every so often. What exactly might I be looking for?"

"I haven't had much fresh air lately, I'll go for wander along the cliffs in the morning, maybe down to the beach," Cess offered, disregarding Richard.

"I'll come with you," Sky said.

"There's no point in us both getting wet."

"I don't mind. Why should Richard get to have all the fun exploring?" To which her husband snorted rudely and the room continued to ignore him.

"Okay," Cess smiled and Sky's heart did a somersault. "The company would be awesome."

"A good call," Maryanne said grimly. "We don't want whatever happened to John happening to you, Cess."

"Have a little faith, Mrs Naysay!" PJ laughed heartily.

"Ms Naysay, thank you very much."

"Along the cliffs, you two," PJ said, thinking Maryanne could be right this time. "But don't go down to the shore. It's too dangerous."

"Mm," Cess agreed with a glance at Sky and PJ knew she was more worried about her safety than her own.

Richard began asking PJ about the hunting in the area and rambling about his own family's estate and PJ was happy to keep him occupied if it freed the others of his attitude. Half an hour and four brandies later PJ could see him tire of the conversation and begin casting evil glares at Sky who was talking quietly with Cess as they looked through PJ's collection of vinyl.

"What are you two whispering about? Sky, don't bore the poor girl," he eventually called across at them, interrupting PJ midsentence. Apparently he could control himself no longer and the women peered at him as if they had forgotten he was there and didn't appreciate the reminder.

PJ handed Richard another brandy and Cess frowned at him; he wasn't usually this helpful when it came to encouraging drunkenness.

"Maybe you should slow down," Sky suggested awkwardly, echoing Cess's thoughts.

"He's fine," PJ chirped, increasing Cess's suspicion markedly. What was he up to? Couldn't he see how uncomfortable Sky was?

"My wife's a prude," Richard whined to no one in particular then focused on her. "Do you remember what the attraction was between us? For the life of me, I can't." He slurped at his drink noisily. His state was spiralling fast.

"You should control your tongue or you will regret it in the morning, Rich," Sky said, burning with shame. "Just like you always do." His bleary eyes gazed at her with a mixture of amusement and accusation.

"Sky can't conceive, can you darling?" he simpered. Sky kept her mouth shut and busied herself refilling her glass. He turned to Cess then and that got Sky's attention. "What about you?" he asked her, still smirking. "You live out here with all these old people, you must be gagging for it. Want to come upstairs and fool around?"

"Jesus, Richard!" It was a step farther than he usually went and Sky was especially embarrassed and shot a look of apology at Cess. But the beautiful blonde met her eyes with equal recompense and Sky felt a manifest agitation in her loins which seemed wholly inapt given the situation.

"What?" he asked, feigning shock. "Can't blame me for trying, can you? Maybe she could give me a child." He giggled at himself and Sky felt very tempted to pour his glass over him. But this kind of behaviour was best left unencouraged, she knew from experience.

Lachlan looked particularly uneasy, as if he was trying to decide whether he should say something or just back out of the room but the Professor was watching her husband like he were a TV sit-com and when he glanced at Sky he gave her a playful wink. Yes, the entertainment has arrived, he seemed to be saying and Sky felt grateful she wasn't being blamed. It was a relief their kind hosts were not offended by Richards's disgraceful antics. Even she was surprised he had managed to get himself in such a state; she didn't think she'd ever seen him quite so plastered before and she had seen some bad nights. At least I can get him to a point where he won't be able to make too much trouble for me tonight.

"What do I need with a wife who can't even give me a baby?" Richard added, sloshing his drink carelessly.

"I can't imagine why you want a baby when it's obvious you still are one yourself," Cess mocked. She sat down close on the sofa and clasped her hand discreetly around Sky's, squeezing it. Sky looked at her in surprise; any thought of her husband and her humiliation melted away in an instant. Having Cess close was far more intoxicating than what was in her glass.

Richard snorted and sniffed sullenly.

"I wouldn't expect a woman like you to understand, Cecilia."

"What kind of woman would that be?" Sky shot at him angrily.

"She's obviously just like you. Another damn prude. And weird at that, out here all alone..."

"You really need to shut up now, Richard, you can say whatever you want to me, but we're guests in this house."

"Stay out of it, woman. Mind your business."

Sky cringed, this was the point of no return.

"How often does he get like this?" Cess whispered to her.

"A few times a year," Sky replied quietly. "Though I'm not sure I've ever seen him exactly this bad before. Not in front of company anyway." Her eyes gravitated toward Cess with a substantial amount of guilt - her position so close to her right side offered a tempting view between the undone buttons at the top of her shirt. She was trying not to look but couldn't help it at certain moments and was reminded of Cess wrapped in her towel the morning after their arrival. She was ablaze with awareness that her hand still remained tantalizingly close to Sky's fingers. She wanted that hand to stay there forever, she dared not move her own. Richard may be the one being crude but Sky's thoughts weren't even close to innocent. It made her angry, to think that her stupid husband was being rude to the most perfect person she had ever met. She winced against her own thoughts and shut her eyes. She wanted to retreat to her room, but that would mean moving away from Cess's lingering fingers; that would mean going to the room Richard and she shared and the last thing she needed right now was to be alone with him and his poison tongue. She was deathly worried about what would happen when they finally made it upstairs. But something unexpected happened then - his head nodded a couple of times then he dropped his glass suddenly which shattered on the hard wood beneath the fine rug; his hands fell into his lap and his chin tucked into his chest in a sedated state. Cess rose and unhurriedly made her way to him; she scooped up the base of the glass and began dabbing at the rug with a cloth. Apparently as an afterthought, she felt for his pulse.

"He doesn't usually pass out like that," Sky said but was more concerned with the sudden abandonment of her hand.

"He's fine," Cess assured her lightly, but Sky thought she detected the hint of perplexity in her eyes.

"And not yet ten. Looks like you're free for the night, Sky," PJ said with a grin. "A good thing too."

Sky saw Cess shoot him a look of anxious confusion and she got the distinct sense that she was missing something. Still, she was relieved Richard was out for the count, and she couldn't pretend otherwise. Maryanne came back in and began scrubbing at the rug properly and Lachlan, as always bent down next to her with a dustpan.

"Should I try to get him upstairs or something?"

"We'll help you with him, if you want to," Maryanne offered. "But maybe you should just leave him there. Dead weight."

"Mm," Sky nodded. "I'm good with that. Hopefully he'll wake up with a sore neck as well as a hangover."

"As long as he wakes up," Cess said cryptically and gave PJ a measured look.

"I really am sorry for his behaviour. He ruined one of your crystal tumblers, I'm so ashamed."

"Not to worry, my dear," PJ waved curtly. "It is far from being your fault and it provided some amusement. In fact, it has tired me out. I believe I am ready to turn in."

"As am I," Lachlan volunteered with relief.

They bid the room goodnight and Cess made to follow PJ but he put a hand up to stop her.

"Maryanne will help me. You keep Sky company, it's been a difficult evening." He tutted at Richards's somnolent form critically before he cruised out of the room with Maryanne in his wake.

"Sky is quite lovely," Maryanne commented to PJ once they were out of earshot of the lounge. "What she is doing married to that man is beyond me."

"An enduring sequence of disastrous decisions, I gather," PJ clucked, driving his chair into the downstairs bathroom to wash up.

"You don't know who he is, do you?" Maryanne asked quietly, tight lipped with disapproval.

"Richard? Other than a petulant child? No," PJ responded, his eye brows raised in curiosity.

"I saw his picture in the paper the other week, I recognised him straight away. He's the criminal lawyer who just got that nasty piece of work Justin Locke acquitted."

"The murderer?" This was news to PJ.

"Locke has ties to the Albanian crime syndicate, the guy is bad news; there's little doubt to whether he committed those murders. I don't mind telling you that having someone like Richard Northcote in this house is about as far from comfortable as it gets," Maryanne nodded. "But I'll keep my mouth shut. I don't want to cause any drama."

"Hmm, indeed not," PJ mused. "And I thought my opinion of him couldn't sink any lower. Still, I suppose he is not in any position to make trouble for us. No more than he can with his sullen attitude that is."

"No. I thank the heavens he passed out the way he did tonight. Poor girl, having to put up with that." She shook her head and went to fetch PJ's bed clothes.

The Professor worked on his teeth slowly and thought about this new information. Suddenly his plan had taken on a far greater urgency and importance and as he brushed an overwhelming tiredness descended on his being. He would sleep well tonight and ask to be left as long as possible the following morning to safeguard against residual pain and fatigue. He could not, however, stop himself from worrying about whether the rain may cease too early to fulfil his mission.

When the others had left the room, Cess turned to Sky and raised an eyebrow spiritedly.

"What do you think? Should we try to finish the night on a higher note?" she asked, backing toward the counter lined with bottles.

Sky smiled at her with a nod.

"It's a good thing you have such a well-stocked bar," she said. Her mind raced as she remembered the comfort of Cess's hand on hers and she made her way over to make herself a martini. They huddled together mixing cocktails.

"Not for Richard, it's not. Not for you either, it can't be much fun listening to him like that."

"He's dead to the world for the next few hours at least," Sky pointed out. "Might as well not dwell on it." It did not evade her that she was alone with the woman she wanted to cheat on her husband with while he sat unconscious in the other end of the room. "To the rain," she said and they clinked glasses.

"Cheers. You're looking at me strangely," Cess said, observing Sky's half smile and intense stare. "What is it?"

"What do you do for fun?" she asked inquisitively. "You're very young to be cooped up here day in day out with only an old man for company. I don't mean to sound like Richard but..."

"Some of us don't feel the same need for constant kicks as others," Cess responded with a shrug. "It's what made me so well suited to this job." She paused and stared into her glass thoughtfully. "The first two years I was here I was given weekends and holidays in which Maryanne took over for the most part. I maintained some form of social life but it didn't really do much for me. PJ says I'm an old soul. Gradually his health got so bad that Maryanne couldn't deal with a lot of the medical sides of taking care of him even for a couple of days at a time. By that time I was so completely disillusioned by life outside here and annoying friends that it wasn't a question of whether I wanted to continue with PJ. We'd become close, I cared about him too much to delegate the job to someone else. It's not as if this is going to last forever -the sad truth is that PJ probably won't last the year out. I intend to follow through with him till the end, make it as easy as possible. I'm going to miss this place, I'm going to miss him."

"Is that why you have so much sadness behind your eyes?" Sky couldn't help asking and Cess looked surprised.

She took a sip from her glass and a moment to answer.

"I've always had that," she said finally but didn't elaborate. "What do you do for fun?"

"I don't have much anymore," Sky answered quickly. "Richard is always insisting we socialise with friends, parties, gatherings -primarily work related. For the first couple of years I didn't mind, maybe even enjoyed it but I am so tired of it now. They are Richards people not mine, I can't stand them."

"Mm," Cess nodded wisely. "You have sadness in your eyes too. I suspected it might be because you're married to a wanker but ...maybe it's because of the baby thing?"

Sky couldn't keep the smile from her face; Cess's use of the word wanker was extraordinarily satisfying.

"Can I tell you a secret?" she asked and Cess grinned mischievously and leaned towards her. For a moment Sky was sorely tempted to lean in herself and kiss her. She repressed the impulse and continued. "I've been on birth control our entire marriage and Richard doesn't know. He wants a child and I don't. You think our marriage is bad now?" She shook her head. "I can envision so perfectly how bad things could get if I actually gave him what he wanted. I would turn into a dumpy, depressed, stay-at home mother and he would be off sleeping with his co-workers and end up divorcing me - leaving me to raise his children."

"Jesus," Cess breathed and looked at her with amusement. If they hadn't both been slightly drunk the conversation would be a lot more serious, Sky thought briefly but was only interested in Cess's smile at that point. "I'm relieved to hear you have at least some sense in your head," she added with a chuckle.

Sky put her hand on her chest in mock surprise.

"So insulting! It's hard to maintain autonomy with someone like Richard. What about you?" Sky wanted to change the subject and she was very curious about Cess's history. Among other things.

"As I said, I am single."

"Well, yes, but you must have had them in the past?"

"Them?"

"Relationships."

"Yes, but nothing very long term or serious. I'm not sure about relationships, I think I'm afraid of them."

"Why is that?"

"They always leave, don't they?" she said matter of fact. "In one way or another, they always leave."

Sky nodded and studied the look in her eyes, they had changed shades in the past minute. Become darker.

"Your eyes change colour when you get emotional," she said. She softened her voice. "I can't imagine why anyone would leave you, Cess."

"That's kind," she responded. "But sometimes it isn't a matter of choice, is it?"

She was omitting a detail, that was obvious but Sky didn't want to make her talk about it. Her eyes were becoming darker by the second. Sky realised then that she cared deeply about this woman's feelings. It was an unusual sensation; to not only detect another person's feelings so easily and to be in a position to change them, but to be in the position where she wanted to. Cess was playing havoc with her own emotions, with her objectives and it ran far deeper than the simple physical attraction she had felt upon meeting her.

"Really, this is the last place I would expect to find someone like you," she said, wanting to allay her mood.

"What exactly do you mean by that?" Cess asked with a smile and her eyes brightened faintly.


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