Book: The Tea Planter’s Wife

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Next: Chapter 33

32

On board the ship, Gwen had finally plucked up the courage to speak to Laurence about the phone call, but he had muttered something inconsequential about work and turned away. She desperately wanted him to admit that Christina was still obsessed with him and had felt bitterly hurt that he couldn’t be honest, but a row at sea with no way to get away from each other was not a good idea. And then, when almost the first thing that happened after they got home was that Verity turned up smelling of tobacco, alcohol and stale scent, everything else was swept aside.

The butler had opened the door to her and hadn’t been able to prevent her stumbling into the sitting room where Laurence and Gwen were relaxing the day after their long journey ended. They’d already found out from McGregor that she’d flouted Laurence’s instructions, and had regularly arrived the worse for wear and stayed at the house for a night or two at a time. She had a key after all, and by the time he, McGregor, had found out about it, she’d gone off again.

At the sight of his sister looking so unkempt, Laurence stood up. With his jaw working to control his distress, he asked what was going on. Verity collapsed into a chair and, her arms clasped round her knees and her head bent, she began to cry.

Gwen went to her and knelt beside the chair. ‘Tell us what the matter is.’

‘I can’t,’ she groaned. ‘I’ve made such a mess of things.’

Gwen held out a hand to comfort her, but Verity pushed it away.

‘Is it Alexander? Maybe we can help.’

‘Nobody can help.’

Laurence looked uncomfortable. ‘I don’t understand. Why did you marry him if he doesn’t make you happy? He’s a decent chap.’

She groaned again, this time with a note of real desolation. ‘It’s not him … not him … you don’t understand.’

He frowned. ‘What then? What is wrong?’

‘Please tell us, Verity,’ Gwen said. ‘How can we help if you don’t say?’

Verity muttered something and began to sob again. Gwen and Laurence exchanged worried looks. While Laurence continued to look uncertain, Gwen decided to take the lead and did her best to encourage her sister-in-law to speak. ‘Come on, darling, surely it can’t be that bad?’

There was no reply in the long stretch of silence that followed.

Gwen stood up to look out of the window at the lake, and in the silence thought about her sister-in-law. She’d lost her parents, true, but so had Fran, and they couldn’t have been more different. Fran was full of life and ready to take on the world, but Verity was moody and very insecure. Now it seemed that whatever the indefinable thing had been, it was coming to a head. She twisted back when she heard Verity speak in a voice choked with emotion.

‘What was that?’ Laurence demanded. ‘What did you say about Hugh?’

Verity looked up and bit her lip. ‘I am really sorry.’

She looked so pale Gwen felt sorry for her, but she hadn’t heard Verity’s words, and judging by the look on Laurence’s face, he had. He marched over to her and pulled her up, holding both her arms.

‘Say that again, Verity. Say it so that Gwen can hear.’

He let go and Verity slumped back into the chair with her head in her hands. When she didn’t speak, Laurence forced her up again.

‘Say it. Say it,’ he growled, turning red in the face.

She looked at him for a moment, then with fluttering hand movements tried to hide her face.

‘My God, you will say it or I will shake it out of you!’

‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry.’

Gwen took a step forward. ‘For what?’

Verity hung her head. ‘It’s been driving me out of my mind. I can’t forgive myself. I love him, you see. You have to believe that.’

‘I don’t understand,’ Gwen said. ‘Is this about Savi Ravasinghe? Have you done something to him?’

Verity looked up sharply.

‘What is it, Verity? You’re scaring me.’

‘Tell her,’ Laurence ordered.

There was a pause, while Verity mumbled.

‘Louder.’

‘Very well,’ she said, raising her voice to a shout and emphasizing each word. ‘I did not take Hugh for his diphtheria vaccination!’

Gwen frowned. ‘Of course you did. Don’t you remember? I had a terrible headache so you went.’

Verity shook her head. ‘You’re not listening.’

‘But, Verity –’

‘I did not take him. Don’t you see? I did not take him! I did not.’

As Verity began to sob, Gwen felt the blood drain from her face. ‘But you said you had,’ she said in a low voice.

‘I went to Pru Bertram’s and took Hugh along. There were some friends there. We had quite a lot to drink and I forgot.’

Laurence let go of his sister and, with a push, drove her away, almost as if to prevent himself from striking her. Then he curled his hand into a fist and slammed it into the back of a sofa.

She clutched at his arm.

He pushed her away again. ‘Get off. I can’t even bear to look at you.’

‘Please don’t say that. Please, Laurence.’

Gwen felt her breathing start to become rapid and shallow. Could it be true? The room seemed to blur, became featureless as the formless shapes of Laurence and his sister melted into their surroundings. She shook her head.

‘Why didn’t you say? He could have gone another time,’ Laurence was saying.

Verity began chewing her nails. ‘I was scared. You’d have been cross with me. You’d both have been so cross.’

Gwen stood motionless, choking with rage. In the stunned silence while nobody spoke, she knew she’d have to hold back or she would regret it. But even while the storm raged in her head she noticed a terrible look in Laurence’s eyes.

‘You’re telling me my son nearly died because you got drunk?’ he said in an icy voice.

He stared at his sister as she began to cry again.

‘So rather than tell us the truth, you put Hugh’s life at risk. You know how dangerous these diseases are.’

‘I know. I know. I thought he’d be all right. He was, wasn’t he? I am sorry. I’m really sorry.’

‘Why are you telling us now?’

‘I’ve never been able to get it out of my head. I haven’t been able to sleep because of it. And then, when I looked at the sick native girl, it reminded me so much of when Hugh was sick … I couldn’t bear it.’

Gwen glared at her. ‘You couldn’t bear it? You!? Have you any idea what it feels like to lose a child?’

Then, provoked beyond reason, she lost all effort at restraint and charged at her sister-in-law. With ragged, hopeless fists she started to pound on the girl’s back. Verity doubled over, shielding her head with her arms. Gwen let her fists fall to her sides and began to heave silently until the loud gulping sobs finally erupted. Laurence instantly came to her side, and she allowed him to lead her away. As she sat down on the sofa and began rocking back and forth, he rang the bell for help.

Another thought now dominated Gwen’s whole being. After a few moments, she glanced up. ‘My prescription, Verity, was it you who altered it?’

Suddenly Verity was shouting and crying at the same time. ‘You didn’t belong here. It was my home. I didn’t want you here.’

Laurence froze, his face a picture of anguish. ‘You could have killed her,’ he said, his voice not much more than a whisper. And then Gwen screwed up her eyes and heard Laurence tell his sister to get out of the house, and never to expect another penny.

The second thing happened a week later, by which time they had already endured a trying seven days. It was almost the end of October now, and soon the rain would start. Laurence had spent long hours walking the dogs, returning very late, and Gwen resented his ability to escape the feeling of doom in the house. For her part, yes, she had wanted Verity gone, but not like this; and she was far too distraught to say I told you so. Despite her anger, she felt pity for her sister-in-law, and in all the turmoil and worry about what would happen to Verity now, she had not found it in her heart to confront Laurence again about the phone call she’d overheard in New York. She comforted herself with the knowledge that it would be some time before they saw Christina again.

Doctor Partridge stood at the window in the silent nursery, gazing out at the lake.

‘It’s a beautiful view,’ he said, and walked towards her where she sat in the chair beside the bed, holding Liyoni’s hand and waiting for his diagnosis. She had called him the moment she noticed that Liyoni’s posture had changed, but he’d been away from home and this was the first chance he’d had to call.

He lifted both Liyoni’s arms and when he let go they seemed to flop. The same happened with her legs. He tested her knee and ankle reflexes. There was little or no response. He coughed, turned to face Gwen, then signalled that she should come to the window. Gwen got up, glancing back at Liyoni who was still staring at the ceiling.

‘The news is not good,’ he said in a low voice. ‘I’m afraid her condition is not what I first thought.’

Gwen looked out at the lake and attempted a smile that she didn’t feel. ‘But last time you were here, you said she would be fine.’

‘This isn’t a nutritional deficiency.’

Her smile still hovered. ‘But she will get better?’

‘I believe this little girl may have a wasting disease. Does she sometimes find it hard to catch her breath, or has she had any respiratory infections?’

Gwen nodded.

‘And you say her posture has worsened?’

Gwen bit her lip and couldn’t speak.

‘It’s hard to be completely sure but I think a degeneration in the spine is causing withering of her muscles.’

She covered her mouth with her hand.

‘I’m sorry.’

‘But there is a treatment? You can still do something?’

He shook his head. ‘If I am right, that this is some kind of muscular atrophy, it will probably only get worse. I’m afraid a failure of the heart is the most likely prognosis.’

Gwen, who had been holding her emotions tight inside, doubled over as if she had been punched.

He held out a hand to help her, but she didn’t take it. If she allowed his sympathy, everything she kept locked inside would pour from her and she’d lose control. She took a deep breath.

‘Is there anything we can do for the poor child?’ she said, keeping her voice as level as she could and gripping the back of a chair for support. ‘Liyoni has no one, you see. Just Naveena … and us.’

‘I will get a wheelchair sent down for her.’

Gwen’s lips parted as she shuddered. ‘No!’

‘If you want a second opinion …’

‘She will still be able to swim, won’t she?’

He smiled. ‘For a while. The natural buoyancy of the water will reduce the pain and the pressure on her spine and legs.’

‘But in the end?’

‘I’ll show the ayah how to massage her legs.’ He made a small puckered movement with his chin. ‘I’ll leave you to it.’

Gwen hesitated. ‘John, I just wondered, if I’d been in a position to bring the child here sooner –’

‘Would this condition have been avoidable? Is that what you mean?’

She nodded, holding her breath during a short stretch of silence.

He shrugged. ‘It’s hard to know. People are born with it. In adults it can be slow and chronic. We really don’t know much about it. In one as young as this, the development tends to be rapid.’

‘So?’

‘Well, in answer to your question, I doubt it would have made much difference.’

As soon as he had gone, Gwen lay on the bed too. ‘It’s all right,’ she said as she stroked Liyoni’s hot forehead. ‘Everything will be all right.’

The next morning, Naveena insisted Liyoni should remain in the nursery, where she could watch over her uninterrupted. The ayah was right. Gwen had other responsibilities to see to and could not be there every minute of the day.

Alone in her room, Gwen’s thoughts returned to the night at the Stork Club. She couldn’t help feeling New York had been a dream; a sleepless, brightly lit and, apart from the phone call, wonderful dream. Whatever Christina had meant by that phone call in New York, at the moment Gwen didn’t care.

She glanced out of her bedroom window to look at the lake, hoping the stillness of the water might soothe her. Instead, against the pale water, she saw Laurence standing in silhouette, and it took a moment before she realized he was carrying Liyoni, with Hugh and the dogs following close behind. The sight of Laurence with the child provoked a depth of feeling in her that stripped her of fear. She grabbed her silk gown and, wrapping it round her, stepped out of her French windows and on to the verandah.

The air was teeming with birds and, together with the whine of mosquitoes, the noise was mounting. She stood for a moment, listening and watching the birds fly back and forth to their nests. A smudgy haze made the garden appear fuzzy, its colours running together like an impressionist painting. As an eagle flew across the horizon, she saw that it was a perfectly lovely day. She watched her little family as they reached the lake. Today it was silver in the middle and deepest green at the perimeter, with the reflections of the trees shading it in places.

Spew raced out of the water and ran up to Gwen, while Ginger ran around in circles chasing his tale. Gwen bent down to pat the dog, but he jumped up and rubbed against her, and every time she touched his nose, a pink tongue shot out and licked her hand. Her thin cotton skirt was damp from his wet fur and she’d acquired his doggy smell too.

Liyoni’s arm was wrapped round Laurence’s neck. After he had taken the last couple of steps to the border of the lake, he carefully unwrapped her. A fleet of cormorants took off as he laid her in the water, but for a moment nothing else happened. Gwen’s heart almost stopped. The water wasn’t deep at the edge, so the child was in no danger of drowning, but Gwen watched her absence of movement in dread.

Laurence stood at the ready, and Hugh had gone into the water on the other side of Liyoni, ready to help if anything went wrong. The child remained lifeless for a few seconds, then suddenly she turned over and began to flap her arms. After floundering for a moment longer, she seemed to find her equilibrium, and with a swift movement, began to swim. As relief flooded through her, Gwen walked down the steps to the lake. Hearing her, Laurence glanced back.

‘That was kind of you,’ she said with a smile, and felt overcome.

The look on his face puzzled her and his voice was gruff when he replied. ‘Partridge told me of her condition. I know you’re fond of her. To be honest, I’m rather getting used to having her around too.’

Gwen swallowed, unable to trust herself to speak. There was no reason to bring about this change in Laurence’s attitude towards the child and, though pleased, she also felt confused. He came up and linked his arm with hers, and they both watched Liyoni’s progress in the water.

‘We mustn’t let her swim too far,’ she said.

‘Don’t worry. At the slightest sign of a problem I’ll be there. Once you’ve lost people you love it makes you realize how much family matters.’

‘Do you mind telling me what actually happened that day? To Caroline, I mean.’

His voice was strained when he replied. ‘You already know.’

‘Yes. But I wondered … I’m sorry for asking, but you said it wasn’t at the lake. I wondered where she drowned? You’ve never actually said.’

‘Because I hate the place. She slid into the pool at the bottom of the waterfall, holding Thomas in her arms. It would have been impossible for her to swim and hold a baby at the same time. Naveena witnessed it.’

Gwen tried to imagine how Laurence must have felt, but the sorrow was too dark and too nameless.

‘Instinct told Naveena something was wrong. That’s why she followed Caroline. If she hadn’t, I don’t suppose we’d ever have known exactly what happened. I sometimes wonder if it might have been better not to know.’

Gwen thought about what he’d said, hesitating before she spoke. ‘Your mind might have invented things.’

He nodded. ‘Perhaps you’re right.’

‘Naveena wasn’t able to stop her?’

Laurence looked at the ground and shook his head. ‘It all happened too quickly.’

‘Who found them? Was it Naveena?’

He placed a hand on his chest as he took a deep breath, then stared at her. For a moment he looked older. She hadn’t noticed before the additional grey in his hair.

‘I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked. You don’t have to tell me.’

He looked down at her and, shading her own eyes from the sun, she gazed into his eyes.

‘It isn’t that …’

‘What then?’

He shook his head. ‘Naveena came to fetch us. McGregor found Thomas, I found Caroline. The strange thing was she was wearing her favourite dress. An oriental silk in vivid sea green. She was dressed as if for a party. It seemed like a statement.’

Gwen’s heart constricted at the thought of it, but she didn’t speak, and for a while, neither did he. He seemed preoccupied. She felt he wanted to say more and waited.

‘The rapids pulled them apart almost immediately. Thomas was found only twenty yards away, but already dead.’ Laurence wiped his forehead with the side of his hand. ‘Just before she left the house she had packed away all of his clothes in the trunk you found.’

‘I am so very sorry,’ Gwen said, and leant against him.

Sorry in so many ways, she thought, and there was so much more she longed to say. She wanted to tell him the truth: wanted to tell him that when she’d overheard him on the phone she’d known it was Christina; wanted to, but did not. She concentrated on her breathing and kept it to herself. This was not the time.

On Sunday evening Hugh was packed off back to school, and early on Wednesday morning McGregor drove them both to Colombo to meet Fran. Once there, Laurence told Gwen to stay in the centre as there had been one or two scuffles in the city’s poorer outskirts.

She frowned. ‘I’m not frightened of a crowd.’

‘I mean it, Gwen. Just go to the store and come straight back to the hotel. No wandering in the bazaar.’

While Laurence was busy arranging for the increased loads of tea to be shipped to the west coast of America, where it would be packaged in a new facility Christina had organized, Gwen took care of some essential shopping. The last person she expected to see that evening was Verity, drenched in perfume and wheeling drunkenly on to the verandah at the Galle Face, waving a cigarette in the air.

‘Darling, there you are,’ Verity said, giving her a twisted smile and slurring her words. ‘I heard you were coming, but I’m afraid you’ve missed your cousin. She left with her husband yesterday.’

‘What are you talking about?’ Gwen said as she reluctantly walked over to her sister-in-law. ‘Fran doesn’t have a husband.’

‘She does now,’ Verity said and threw herself into a nearby chair. ‘Phew, I’m out of puff!’

An air of disorder hung about Verity: her thin brown hair, plastered to her skull, looked like it needed a good wash, and her clothes were crumpled.

Gwen stretched out a hand. ‘Get up. I’m taking you to your room. People are looking. You can’t stay down here in this state.’

‘Haven’t got a room.’

‘In that case, where did you spend last night?’

‘This chap I met. Quite nice really. Had blue eyes.’ She paused, deliberately it seemed, for dramatic effect. ‘Or maybe they were brown.’

Gwen bristled, as she knew Verity had intended she should. There wasn’t a hint of contrition about her, and she was behaving as if the terrible scene at home had never happened.

‘I don’t give a fig about some chap, whatever the colour of his eyes,’ Gwen said. ‘You’re coming up to our room, right now.’

She managed to manoeuvre Verity to the left-hand stairs without too much fuss, but when they were halfway up, the girl stopped and stood still.

‘Come on,’ Gwen said and gave her a push. ‘We’re not there yet.’

Verity, standing on the next step up, looked down at Gwen and prodded her in the chest. ‘You think you’re so smart.’

Gwen glanced at her watch and sighed. ‘I don’t think I’m smart at all. Now hurry up, I want you to sober up before Laurence gets back. You know very well he has refused to see you, and getting yourself in this state won’t help him change his mind. About a gallon of coffee should do it.’

‘Nope. You need to listen to me first.’

As they eyed one another, Gwen’s spirits plummeted. This wasn’t going to be easy. She was itching to see Fran, but first, after an afternoon in Colombo, with her hair and clothes full of dust, she needed a hot bath. As she thought of her cousin, she wondered if Verity could have been telling the truth and, if so, who Fran had married without whispering a word.

‘So, are you listening?’ Verity said, interrupting her thoughts and arching her brows.

Too close, Gwen smelt Verity’s bad breath and sighed, unable to able to keep the sarcasm from her voice. ‘Out with it then. What startling revelation have you got for me?’

‘You won’t be laughing in a minute.’ Verity took a step and wobbled.

‘Come on, let’s get you upstairs double quick. Come on. Chop chop, before you fall down the stairs.’

Verity stared at Gwen and muttered something.

‘You are about as clear as mud. What is it?’ Gwen said.

‘I know.’ Her eyes narrowed as she smiled.

‘Verity, this is becoming tedious. You’ve already told me about Fran. Now come on, before I lose patience.’

Gwen attempted to push her up the stairs, but Verity nodded her head very slowly and, staring back with a look of intense determination, clutched the handrail and held her ground.

‘I know that Liyoni is your daughter.’

In the silence, Gwen stood absolutely still. Her mind seemed unnaturally clear. It was her body’s reaction that was letting her down. The burst of heat, when it came, left her with bees buzzing in her head. She suddenly knew what it felt like to be consumed by the desire to kill. With just two little steps, and one little push, Verity would be gone. A drunken fall, a terrible accident. That’s what the papers would say. As the strength of her feelings consumed her, she reached out a hand. Just a couple of steps up and one little push. Then the thought vanished as quickly as it had risen.

‘That’s shut you up, hasn’t it?’ Verity said and began to climb the steps.

Gwen, now short of breath, tried to inhale, but with the shock squeezing the air out of her, she’d forgotten how to breathe. She clung to the banister, opening and closing her mouth in panic. It flashed into her mind that, gasping as she was, she must look like a dying fish. The ridiculous image seemed to prompt her lungs to remember what to do and she managed to regain control.

She followed Verity to the landing, took a step forward and pointed out their door, not trusting herself to speak. Verity barged past, her gait uneven, then sprawled in an armchair in the room, staring morosely at the patterned parquet floor. She glanced at Gwen, who was distracting herself by folding and unfolding Laurence’s shirts in an attempt to stop her heart banging against her ribs.

‘You’ve folded that one three times. I said you wouldn’t be laughing.’

‘What?’

‘I heard you talking to Naveena. Just before you brought the chee-chee mongrel child to live in Laurence’s house.’

‘You must have misheard. Now I’ve called for some coffee and you’re going to drink it and stop this silly nonsense.’

Verity shook her head, dipped into her bag, pulled out a sheaf of charcoal drawings and waved them in the air. ‘It was actually these that told me all I needed to know.’

Gwen’s heart jolted and, conscious that her voice would shake and give away how frightened she was, she ran over and tried to tug Liyoni’s drawings from Verity’s hand.

‘Oh no,’ Verity said and pulled away. ‘I’m hanging on to these.’

One ripped and Gwen bent to pick up the fragment, giving her a few seconds to compose herself before she stood and faced Verity again. ‘How dare you go through my private things! In any case, I don’t know what you think you’ve found.’

Verity laughed. ‘I read this fascinating article about a woman in the West Indies who had given birth to twins of different colours. She had slept with her husband, of course, but also with the master. I think Laurence would be interested. Don’t you?’

There was a long stretch of silence, during which Gwen could hardly believe what she was feeling. Anger, yes, and fear too, but there was something else. A terrifying hollowed-out feeling she’d never quite felt before. From the drawings Verity would have seen that Liyoni had been learning to write in the tiny village school – and that on the last couple of drawings she had written about a white lady her foster mother had told her about. A white lady who, one day, might come for her. Naveena had translated it for her, but Gwen knew that Verity was able to understand Sinhala.

‘If he asks Naveena outright, she will tell him, you know,’ Verity said.

‘I’ve had enough of this,’ Gwen said, more to herself than Verity, and opened the window. She tried to calm her racing pulse by looking down at the long stretch of lawn that extended from the hotel, the road that passed through it, and at the wisps of plants that grew in cracks in the sea wall. But when she heard the sound of children laughing as they flew a kite, it brought tears to her eyes.

There was a knock at the door.

‘There’s the coffee. Will you be mother?’ Verity said. ‘It does seem rather apt, and I am just too tired to move.’

When the waiter had left, Gwen poured the coffee.

Verity sipped hers. ‘I have a proposal for you. A way out, if you like.’

Gwen shook her head.

‘If you promise to get my allowance reinstated, I won’t tell Laurence.’

‘That is blackmail.’

Verity inclined her head. ‘Up to you.’

Gwen sat down and scratched around for some kind of response that would put a stop to this. She gulped the scalding coffee and burned her lips.

‘Now, changing the subject, wouldn’t you like to know who Fran has married? I take it you don’t already know?’

‘If this is another of your hurtful lies …’

‘No word of a lie. I saw them together, and when she saw I’d clocked the rings on her finger, what could she say? A massive diamond, the engagement ring, surrounded by sapphires, but also a telltale band of gold. The man had one too, though he tried to keep his hands behind his back.’

Gwen folded her arms and leant back, wondering what was coming next. ‘So who is he?’

Verity smiled. ‘Savi Ravasinghe.’

Gwen watched the sunlight flickering on Verity’s face and struggled to suppress her desire to throttle the woman.

Verity laughed. ‘The father of your brat – because he is the father, isn’t he, Gwen? He must be. You don’t know any other men of colour. Apart from the servants, of course, and I don’t think even you would stoop that low. You may have everyone fooled, Gwen, but I see through you.’

Gwen felt like howling, and the only clear words she could hear in her head were: please, please – don’t tell Laurence.

‘Florence said she saw you going up the stairs with Savi at the ball, and you went to see him on your own when Fran was ill. He now co-owns Fran’s share in the plantation. Laurence won’t be too happy about that, and if I tell him about your daughter too, well – I’m sure he’ll let me come home.’

Gwen stood up. ‘Very well. I’ll have a word with him about your allowance.’

‘So it is true? Liyoni is your daughter.’

‘I did not say that. You’re twisting my words. I just want to help you.’

She knew her voice had sounded artificial, and it was confirmed when Verity threw back her head and roared with laughter.

‘You are too transparent, Gwen. I didn’t really overhear you and Naveena. One day the child was sitting near you, the sun lit your faces in a particular way, and I saw. She has your bone structure, Gwen. Then I noticed her hair. Normally it’s tied up or plaited, but she’d been in the water and it had dried in ringlets, just like yours.’

Gwen tried to interrupt.

‘Hear me out. After that I watched you together and your feelings for her became obvious. I searched your room one day when you were in New York, and I found the box and the key. Now why would you hide the drawings of a native child, Gwen? Why would you treasure them? Keep them under lock and key?’

Gwen felt the blood flood into her face as she bent down to pick up a piece of fluff from the floor.

‘I felt sure when I found the drawings, but in any case your response now has told me all I needed to know. It was Savi Ravasinghe, wasn’t it? He’s the mongrel girl’s father. Wonder what your cousin will make of that!’

When Gwen stood, she tucked a stray ringlet behind her ear and tried to keep her voice steady. ‘I don’t understand why you want to hurt me so. Don’t you even care how much you’re going to hurt your brother?’

Silence.

‘Well?’

‘I care about Laurence.’

Gwen feared she might not be able to hold herself together. ‘So why are you doing this?’

‘I need my allowance.’

‘But why? You have a husband.’

Verity closed her eyes briefly as she took a sharp breath in. ‘I don’t want to end up like you.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Forget it. Just make sure you speak to my brother.’

‘And if I don’t, you’re prepared to ruin our lives?’

Verity raised her brows. ‘I shall expect to see my allowance coming in to my account on a monthly basis, starting next month. If not, Laurence shall know everything.’

‘You know very well that until the brand succeeds, Laurence won’t be in a position to do that.’

‘In that case, I think you have something of a dilemma to resolve.’

‘I know you were stealing from the household budget. What do you think Laurence will make of that? I knew when I was ill. Supplies disappeared from the cupboard and then suddenly reappeared. You had the key while I was sick, and before I arrived. It could only have been you.’

‘It was good while it lasted. The appu and I sold stuff on and shared the profits. What a joke when we saw you trying to make sense of the accounts! But you’d have a hard time proving it. I’ll tell Laurence I was just borrowing, and anyway, when I tell him about your brat, do you think he’ll care?’

‘Tell me why you need money so badly. What about Alexander?’

Verity’s face closed up. ‘I’ve already said. That is not an option.’

‘I could try to persuade Laurence to let you live with us again.’

She looked at Verity, but her sister-in-law had fallen asleep.

Gwen knew she had to get Verity out of the hotel before Laurence arrived, and felt as if she was living on a boundary somewhere between her real life and a nightmare she had inadvertently stumbled into. She clung to the hope that Verity’s threat was empty and only the result of a drunken excess, but in her heart she suspected her sister-in-law was capable of almost anything.

In order to keep an eye out for Laurence, Gwen paraded back and forth in front of the window, watching the clock and smoking several of Verity’s vile cigarettes which only intensified the nausea that was rising in her. Suffocated by fear, she longed to cry for the release it would bring, but forced herself to suppress her tears, along with any hope that this would end well. Gwen didn’t know if she really believed the story about Fran’s marriage, but if it was true her cousin was no longer the one person in the world she wanted to talk to.

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Next: Chapter 33