‘Here, sit down. I’m going to make you some tea,’ Constance said firmly.
Frankie sat down obediently on a large, faded velvet sofa and as the dog jumped up beside her lightly, she pressed her hand against his back. He felt warm and solid and, blinking back tears, she breathed out unsteadily.
Outside, in the screaming power of the storm, she had been robbed of the power of thought. It had been all she could do to cling to Arlo. Now, with the flames warming her body, her brain was coming back online.
Her fingers curled into the dog’s fur as she pictured the scene on the causeway, her guilt blotting out any relief she might have felt at having been rescued. How could she have been so stupid? After everything that had happened. After all the promises she’d made to herself. To her family.
‘You need to get changed.’
Her head jolted up at the sound of a deep, male voice. Arlo had walked back into the room, holding a pile of towels. Folded on top were a green-and-blue-striped rugby shirt and some sweatpants.
‘Here.’ He held out the pile. ‘These are some of Johnny’s clothes. Your suitcase got drenched,’ he said, by way of explanation.
He was staring down at her intently, and the flickering flames highlighted the hard angles of his face. He was soaked right though to his skin too, she thought guiltily. His shirt was sticking to his arms and body, and water was pooling in little puddles at his feet.
Picturing how he’d swept her into his arms like a knight without armour, she felt her heart beating too hard for her body. He’d saved her life. But, more importantly, he had risked his own.
She was about to apologise, to thank him for what he’d done, but before she could open her mouth, he said abruptly, ‘They might be a little big, but they’re clean and dry. I’ll leave you to get out of those wet things.’
Glancing down at the dog, he frowned, moved as if to say something else, and then seemed to change his mind.
She watched him walk back out of the room, and then she stood up shakily. Her fingers were clumsy with cold, and it seemed to take for ever to peel off her jeans and sweatshirt, but finally she managed to get undressed and into Johnny’s clothes. As she was rubbing her hair with a towel there was a knock at the door and Constance popped her head round.
‘Oh, good, you’ve changed.’ She was carrying a tray. ‘I’ve brought you some tea and biscuits.’ Leaning down, she picked up the pile of wet clothes. ‘I’ll just take these and run them through the washing machine.’
Frankie shook her head. ‘Oh, no, please...that’s really not necessary—’
Arlo was back. He had changed into faded chinos and a dark jumper that moulded around the contoured power of his arms and chest, and she had a sudden sharp memory of how it had felt to be pressed against his body.
‘The salt will rot them if you don’t wash it out.’ He turned towards the housekeeper. ‘Constance, could you give us a few moments? I need to have a couple of words with Ms Fox.’
As the door clicked shut, Frankie said quickly, ‘Actually, I wanted to—’
‘What the hell do you think you’re playing at?’
Her chin jerked up as Arlo spun round, his eyes blazing. She stared at him, dry-mouthed, her heart pounding fiercely. Last night she’d thought he was angry, but now she saw that had been a warm-up to the main act.
‘I’m not playing at anything—’
But he wasn’
t listening. ‘So what was that little stunt of yours about?’ He shook his head derisively. ‘Let me ask you something. Do you know what that is out there?’ He gestured to where the rain was slicing horizontally across the window. ‘It’s a storm with a name. Not all storms have names, but if they do that means there are winds of over fifty miles an hour.’ His lip curled. ‘There’s also this thing called a tide. And twice a day there’s a high tide. That means the sea is at its highest—’
‘I know what a high tide is,’ she snapped, her shock switching to anger at the condescension in his voice. ‘I’m not a child.’
‘Then why were you out there skipping down the causeway like a pre-schooler?’ His cold gaze was fixed on her face, the pale line of his scar stark against the dark stubble. ‘Did you think you could influence the weather? Make the sun shine? Stop the wind blowing?’
Stomach twisting, she struggled against a surge of humiliation and fury. ‘I was doing what you told me to do. I was leaving.’
‘What I told you to do—?’ He rolled his eyes. ‘I might have known this would be my fault.’
‘I didn’t say that’
‘But you thought it.’ His eyebrows collided in the middle of his forehead. ‘Of course you did—because nothing is ever your fault, is it, sweetheart?’
Her ribs tightened sharply at the memory of a different room on another rainy day. Not her fault officially, no. But the coroner’s verdict hadn’t changed the facts. She knew it had been her fault. All of it. That if she hadn’t been so selfish, so insistent about getting her own way, then her family would still be alive...