Marian was staring fixedly through the train window, her heart pounding heavily and her eyes wide with anxiety. Hoping for a miracle she checked her watch once more. Almost eleven o'clock – and still a good half-hour left before she would arrive at King's Cross station. She impatiently voiced her thoughts on the railway company, and the elderly woman next to her rewarded her with a reproachful glance. Marian smiled apologetically. The woman gave her another dark look before huffily returning to her magazine. Marian's smile quickly faded away and she drew a steadying breath. Okay, so George's flight was scheduled to arrive in about an hour and fifteen minutes. She could still make it. Maybe… She sighed heavily and felt a strong need for another cursing frenzy. A quick glance at her neighbour rapidly changed her mind and she turned back to the window. Frowning darkly she gave the innocent landscape sweeping past the window a menacing glare.
Doggedly pushing her way through the crowd at the King's Cross station she left a trail of affronted people behind. She managed to catch the train to Heathrow and tried to relax as the old train unhurriedly rattled its way toward the airport. The cold lump of anxiety in her stomach was not about to vanish though. Her thoughts were swirling in a continuous sequence of "what ifs". What if he had changed his mind? What if she had changed her mind for that matter? What if he took one look at her and thought "Oh, God, no…"? What if he… She groaned irritably and tried to calm her bolting imagination before it ran off with all of her mettle. They were by now approaching Hatton Cross, and suddenly the speaker system croaked into life. Smiling thinly Marian listened to the message. Well, what else had she expected? Of course they were renovating the Terminal Five station. Why shouldn't they? She gave a shrug of defeat before heading for the exit. The shuttle was patiently waiting at its stop, and as soon as the last passenger had boarded it accelerated towards the airport. Eight minutes later she finally arrived at Terminal Five. Marian was by now resigned to her faith, and with a sinking feeling she checked a monitor. Her suspicions were confirmed. BA 7371 had arrived twenty minutes before schedule. Of course it had. She shrugged again and began her search for the meeting point. Her agitated eyes persistently searched the milling crowd, and she shortly spotted George Baxter leaning nonchalantly against the wall. She stopped dead and her heart launched into her mouth. The sight of his tanned, arrogant face made her stomach's nervous flutter grow into hurricane force. Despite her discomfort she couldn't help smiling at the difference between a swarm of well dressed businessmen in black suits and the relaxed rancher in his pale blue shirt and white jeans. Her eyes fell to the three unbuttoned top buttons in his shirt, and her heart began to race. She smiled self-mockingly. At least she hadn't changed her mind. She didn't take her eyes off him for a second while slowly pushing her way through the crowd. Finally his cool gaze met hers and she gave him a tentative smile. She anxiously watched his tired face and her trepidation grew when he didn't seem to respond. Her slow advancement came to a hesitant halt. Standing three metres apart they watched each other cautiously. Finally Marian could bear it no longer. She smiled uncertainly and gave a penitent shrug.
'I'm sorry I'm late' she apologized lamely.
Inwardly she winced in mortification. She had been picturing this moment countless times these last three weeks. In no scenario had her first words been "I'm sorry I'm late".
George was still watching her impassively and she glumly took a couple of steps forward, instinctively reaching for him. He looked down at her hand on his sleeve, and slowly his grave expression melted.
'I was afraid you had changed your mind' he growled quietly.
Marian's eyes filled with tears when she looked up into his harsh features. She smiled radiantly into his eyes, hoping to eliminate the insecurity she could perceive there.
'Never' she answered solemnly.
He looked searchingly into her eyes and a smile finally softened his reserved expression. With a relieved grunt he pulled her into his arms, hugging her tightly and burying his face in her hair. Wrapped in his arms Marian nuzzled closer, greedily inhaling his scent. He leaned down and his lips found hers in a drawn-out kiss. Wide eyed and flustered she surfaced and met his equally discomposed gaze.
'I've missed you' she confessed thickly.
He gave her another yearning kiss before quickly releasing her.
'Come on' he said, smiling feebly. He put his arm around her shoulders. 'Where do you keep those cabbies I've heard so much about?'
She gave him a bemused glare, feeling sadly rejected by this cavalier treatment. He grinned unrepentantly and placed a tender kiss on her temple. Slightly mollified she followed him towards the exit.
The cab-ride was mostly spent in silence. George was continuously playing with her hands, eagerly scrutinizing her face, and occasionally leaning over to kiss her. Marian sat watching him in tranquil bliss, finally reaching out to touch his guarded face. She slowly let her thumb follow his unshaven jaw and he firmly took hold of her hand. He looked down at the engagement ring with a satisfied smirk before slowly raising his gaze to hers. With his eyes locked into hers he unhurriedly lifted her hand to his lips, gently tickling her palm with the tip of his tongue. Marian's eyes darkened with excitement, and they were both breathing heavily when he let go. They exchanged a long look of awe.
'So. Missed me, did you?' George finally rumbled.
Marian shrugged noncommittally with her gaze fixed on his mouth. He smiled self consciously and leaned over to give her a lingering kiss.
'I missed you too' he murmured softly into her ear.
The hot air from his breath brushed her cheek and her eyes widened when a tingling sensation spread through her body. She raised her gaze to his face and smiled lazily before reaching up to kiss him. Sliding her arms around his neck she could feel his heart beating heavily. With a soft, stifled moan he reluctantly freed himself.
'We can't be doing this' he said unsteadily.
Marian gave him an injured look. Shrugging apologetically he smiled yearningly down into her bemused eyes.
'I am aware of what people say about me' he observed dryly. He shrugged again and made a self-mocking grimace. 'And I have to admit that they aren't always that far off.'
Looking into his grave eyes she shook her head in bewilderment.
'I used to think that it didn't matter what people thought' he continued 'but this… us…' he made a vague gesture 'it's too important.'
She wrinkled her forehead in an effort to understand what he was talking about. He looked down at her expression of concentrated confusion and groaned impatiently.
'I'm not explaining this very well, am I?'
Marian raised her shoulders desolately. He groaned again before waveringly continuing.
'This… thing between us…' he said hesitantly before falling silent again.
She stared unblinkingly at him.
'Well, this is new to me' he eventually burst out. 'I want to do it right.'
Her eyes widened in surprise.
'You want to do it right?' she repeated incredulously.
George gave her an embarrassed nod and she gazed thoughtfully at him.
'And the right thing would be..?' she said encouragingly.
He gave her a sheepish look.
'Well, before we do anything I'm going to ask your fathers permission' he said, nervously stumbling over the words.
Marian managed to turn her sudden laughter into an extended coughing fit.
'You're going to ask my father's permission about what, exactly' she asked innocently.
George cringed and turned crimson.
'I didn't mean… I wasn't implying…' he spluttered incoherently before catching the glitter in her eyes. He gave her a caustic look before starting over. 'I am going to ask your fathers permission to marry you' he declared defiantly.
Marian's eyes melted into a warm, chocolaty gaze and she gave him a lustrous smile. He was very sweet. A little too stuffy perhaps, but very, very sweet. She reached up and gave his cheek an affectionate kiss.
'You do that' she said indulgently.
George gave her a doubtful glare.
'You wouldn't be laughing at me now, would you?' he asked suspiciously.
Marian's compliant expression couldn't wholly conceal her amusement, and her eyes sparkled with suppressed laughter when she looked up at the uncomfortable George.
'Me? Never!' she lied unconvincingly.
The cab pulled up at Leicester Square and the subject was dropped. Marian gave the deferential exterior of the Radisson Edwardian Hampshire Hotel an impressed stare before entering. A thick carpet adorned the lobby's marble floor, effectively softening the sound of their footsteps. Marian's brooding over an enormous gilded chandelier was suddenly interrupted, and she gave George a questioning look.
'You wouldn't happen to have your driver's license handy, would you?' he repeated.
She knitted her brows in confusion.
'Because the nice lady here would want to have a look at it' he explained patiently.
'Oh' she answered curtly. She was silent for a couple of seconds and then returned to the heart of the matter. 'Why?'
'I wouldn't know. Maybe it's a compulsive disorder' he responded calmly.
Marian gave him a withering look before producing her license. The receptionist accepted it with a professional smile and Marian turned to glare at George.
'If you would sign here' the woman requested.
Marian meekly did as she was told. Getting her document back she shot George a sardonic look.
'So… Where does this fit into your plan of "wanting to do it right"?' she hissed at him as they obediently trotted after the porter. He only shrugged and gave her an innocent smile.
'You wouldn't want me to get lost on my way to South Shields tomorrow, would you?' he asked pleadingly.
She gave him a dry glance.
'You're a big boy, I'm sure you could have managed' she huffed placidly. 'And what's more – since I thought I was going home tonight I didn't bring any clothes.'
He smiled widely at her reflection in the huge elevator mirror.
'There's nothing wrong with the one's you've got on, is there?' he mused.
Marian rolled her eyes at him.
'I wouldn't know, being a country boy and all' he drawled unperturbed 'but you don't think there might be some place around here actually selling clothes?'
Her eyes sparkled gleefully up at him. Of course she didn't want anything more than to stay with him, but she saw no reason to tell him that. And besides. She had a firm notion he already knew.
The porter guided them through a lengthy passage before halting outside a plain door. He quickly unlocked it and handed her the key before escorting George to the room next door. Marian looked after them with a crestfallen expression and George threw her an aggravating grin over his shoulder. She glared at him long and hard before entering her room. Stopping just inside the door she gaped at the tub situated in the stone-floored hall. Raising her eyebrows she suspiciously approached the misplaced bathing equipment. So someone had decided that a nice place for a bathtub would be next to the hat rack? Ah, well. She shrugged dismissively and turned to examine the rest of her surroundings. She gasped, spellbound by the sight of the gigantic four-poster bed with its luxurious, red bedclothes. She went over and touched the soft fabric on her way to the huge windows. She meditated momentarily over the busy street life before turning back to her room. A flat TV-screen merrily greeted Ms Slight and wished her a pleasant stay. She glanced briefly at the remote control, but hardened herself against the temptation. Instead she quickly examined the small bathroom before she, with a final amused glance at the bathtub, went over to George's room. To her surprise there was no answer when she knocked on the door. She tried the handle. The door opened and she cautiously walked in.
'George?' she said softly.
No answer. She hesitated for a moment before trying again.
This time the question was met with a slight snore. She stealthily crept over to the bed where she found George fast asleep. She smiled affectionately down at him. He looked so unexpectedly young and defenceless in his slumber. Glancing around the room her eyes fell on a rug slung over the back of a Victorian armchair. Careful not to wake him she spread the rug over him and silently left the room. Back in her own room she flung herself on the bed and reached for the remote. Zapping aimlessly through the channels she finally settled on an old ABBA-movie. After almost an hours half-hearted concentration she was growing rather tired of the harassed Australian reporter and his stressed chief editor, so the faint knock on the door was a welcome interruption. Outside she found a newly awakened and very embarrassed George. His dishevelled appearance and bashful expression filled her with an intense feeling of affection, and her face lightened in a welcoming grin.
'I'm really sorry, I just sort of…' his voice faltered.
'Fell asleep' she nodded.
'Yeah, that.' He shrugged apologetically.
'Leaving me stranded without either food or clothes' she continued.
'Yeah, that too' he concurred, leaning down and giving her a quick kiss. 'But I just might have something to make you forgive me' he continued hopefully. 'In case you'll let me come in, that is.'
She gave him a pondering look before stepping out of the way. Sweeping past her he held out a paper bag. She accepted it with a questioning look.
'There's only one way to find out, isn't it?' ha said noncommittally.
She glowered at him before curling up on the bed to examine the contents. The first she found was a bundle of letters beautifully tied together with red silk.
'Well, everyone wanted to send their love' George shrugged. 'I just couldn't remember everything they said, so I asked them to write it down instead.'
Marian's eyes filled with tears at the thought of the friends she'd left in the Crossing. Her fingers trembled as she unfastened the flamboyantly tied bow. The first letter she opened was from Nancy, and she read the kind words through a veil of tears. Kate's letter contained a couple of snapshots, and once more Marian had to dry her eyes. She glanced up at George who was watching the waterworks with an understanding smile. When she'd finished her letters she gave him a miserable look.
'I really miss them' she managed in a tight voice.
George sat down on the bed and put his arms around her.
'I know' he said soothingly. 'I know.'
Her sobs finally subsided and she looked up at him with a sheepish expression. He gravely removed a wet lock from her face before giving her a sudden smile.
'I'm quite sure there's something left in that bag that will cheer you up' he observed softly.
She gave him a hesitant look before unearthing an interesting looking parcel. Her curious gaze met his amused eyes, and she quickly ripped the packet open. Inside was a dark green knitted sweater. Marian chewed her lower lip thoughtfully. There was definitely something wrong with it, but she couldn't put her finger on what. She unfolded the sweater and tilted her head meditatively. The corners of her mouth began to twist as she scrutinized the lopsided garment. George, though more prepared, was pondering the asymmetrical piece of clothing with a stunned look. Marian raised her eyebrows at him.
'Look, Chris has been taking up knitting since Kate moved in with Geoff' he responded. 'It's just that she… hasn't quite got the knack of it yet.'
Marian eyed the sweater warily.
'You don't say' she mused.
With a last frightened glance at the garment George shrugged expressively.
'Well, Chris is nothing if not generous. There is more than one person in the Crossing whose clothes are a bit… askew' he said stone facedly.
Marian giggled helplessly at the thought.
'You wouldn't be one of them, would you?' she asked interestedly.
'I am proud to say that I am one of those who started the trend' he said with a self-mocking grimace.
She gave him an incredulous look.
'It's true' he persisted. 'At the RFDS meeting last week I was wearing a yellow sweater with one sleeve almost four inches shorter than the other.'
He gave her a dry look and Marian's soft eyes laughed sympathetically at him. His eyes widened yearningly and he hurriedly looked away.
'There's one more thing' he said uneasily.
Marian gave him a quick look.
'What?' she asked earnestly.
He handed her a thin, well-thumbed envelope.
'I just thought you might like this' he said awkwardly.
She gazed uncertainly up into his inscrutable expression.
'Thank you' she said warily, tearing the envelope open.
Marian quickly skimmed the short document. When she'd finished she gave him an incredulous look.
'Are you sure?' she asked in astonishment.
He shrugged dispassionately, and she gaped at him in dumbfounded silence.
'You… I… but…' she finally spluttered incoherently.
George relaxed noticeably.
'So. You liked it then?' he asked hopefully.
With an excited shriek she threw her arms around him and pulled him down onto the bed. She gave him a loving smile and showered him with enthusiastic kisses. With a smug look he pulled her close enough for yet another kiss. Leaning her arms on his chest she gazed affectionately into his eyes.
'But… I mean… Flash? You're really sure?' she asked falteringly.
He placed an arm behind his head and smiled placidly at her.
'You can't have a hat without a horse, can you?' he observed.
'You might have a point there' she admitted. 'And he matches the hat so well too.' Her eyes suddenly widened in repentance. 'But I haven't got you anything' she realized.
He gazed into her eyes.
'I can't think of anything else I'd want' he said gravely.
Her breath caught and she couldn't take her eyes off him. The hackneyed words was uttered with such earnestness that all her urge to laugh vanished. He gave her a discomfited smile.
'Except perhaps something to eat' he continued gruffly. 'And besides, we need to get you some clothes before the shops close.'
Marian winced as the rain poured down her neck. Looking up at George's drenched face she smiled sardonically.
'Welcome to England!' She shrugged apologetically.
He gave the dark sky a worried glance.
'I hope it stops till tomorrow' he observed.
Marian gave him a quick look before gazing meditatively at the clouds.
'Yes, I should think so. Why?' she asked, wondering about this sudden deep interest in the British climate.
'No reason' he answered, looking a little too innocent for comfort.
She glared sharply at his blank expression.
'Okay, what have you been up to this time?' she enquired resignedly.
'Nothing' he grinned infuriatingly. 'Nothing at all!'
'Now why don't I believe you?' she asked in a voice dripping with irony.
'I really don't know' he stated, smiling inoffensively. 'With a reputation like mine, why wouldn't you trust me?'
The withering look he received made him laugh out loud, and he readily put his arm around her shoulders and dragged her off towards Covent Garden. They were both soaking wet when they finally entered the rebuilt greengrocer market, and Marian gazed longingly at the café by the entrance.
'Clothes first, hot beverage later' George rebuked her mockingly, and she humbly followed him towards the row of small shops. 'So. What are we looking for?' he continued.
'Well, the pressing issue would be underwear' she smiled innocently, enjoying the almost imperceptible stiffening of his facial expression. This could be fun.
With her hand in a firm grip he quickly discarded shop after shop until finally stopping in front of a small, expensive looking boutique. Marian sighed and gave him a weary glance.
'I said I needed underwear, George, not designer dresses!'
George opened his mouth to reply but was interrupted by a small brunette who suddenly exited the shop and excitedly threw herself at him.
'George! Is it really you?' the newcomer squealed happily.
Marian felt a powerful stab of jealousy. Who the hell was this woman? Obviously a very close friend if the lipstick marks on George's cheek was anything to go by. She gave the intruder a malevolent look. "Is it really you?" What a stupid question to ask. Glaring moodily at George's face she noticed the pleased flush and warm smile he was bestowing on the trespasser. Another jealousy jolt shattered her thoughts.
'Hello, Kath!' he said warmly. 'Still peddling those overpriced rags of yours are you?'
'Overpriced rags, huh?' the woman replied amiably. 'Ah, well. You always knew what a girl wanted to hear, didn't you, George? Anyway, what are you doing here? I haven't seen you since you moved back to Australia and that must be… seven or eight years ago!'
'Your arithmetic is as bad as always, Chook. It's been at least eleven years' he replied with an evil grin.
'I thought I'd told you to stop calling me that' she huffed good-naturedly. 'And besides – it can't possibly be eleven years. I'm not old enough, for one thing.'
George raised his eyebrows and gave Kath a knowing smile, but refrained from making a comment. Instead he turned back to the stone-faced Marian with a breezy smile.
'Marian, I'd like you to meet Kath, a very old friend. Kath, this is Marian.'
Kath glowered at him at the emphasis on the word old before shrugging and giving Marian a friendly grin. Marian, fighting the jealousy storm that was wrecking through her body, managed to returne a feeble smile.
'Hello, Marian. Pleased to meet you' Kath said genially before turning back to George. 'Well, and here I thought you'd turned to wearing dresses.'
He laughed throatily and the green-eyed monster gave Marian another tug.
'You've got anything that'd fit me?' He laughed again when Kath made a move as to return to the store. 'Okay, I'm sure you have, but I was thinking more of something in Marian's size.'
They both turned to look at her, and Marian glared back. Kate seemed far to engrossed by the project, but George gave her a puzzled glance.
'So where are you taking her?' Kath mused.
'Not knowing, can't tell' George responded cheerfully.
Kath gave him a weary look and he shrugged a little uncomfortable. Another few seconds and he grudgingly crumbled.
'Okay, okay. You're still as bad as ever, aren't you Chook?' he growled, grinning affectionately at the quite unmoved Kath. 'I thought we'd have dinner at the Naticia.'
Kath whistled softly and gave Marian an impressed look.
'The Naticia, huh?' Kath repeated and a wide grin spread over her face. 'Well I think I've got just the garment. You go over to Ron's and get yourself a beer and I'll see what I can do.'
If Marian's feelings hadn't been so ruffled she would have laughed at George's crestfallen expression. He looked like he was going to argue, but Kath's annoyed glare cut him short and with a last hesitant look at Marian he obediently shuffled off. Kath turned to Marian and gave her an affable smile.
'Come on. I've got just the dress for you!'
Marian reluctantly followed the woman into the shop.
'Wait here, I'll be right back' Kath said and quickly disappeared up a flight of stairs.
Not knowing what else to do the bemused Marian paced the store. She gave a price tag an apprehensive look and gasped in dismay. She had no intention of paying £175 for anything that didn't come with four wheels or at least a remote control. She heard Kath coming back down, and turned to voice this view. The sight of the burgundy coloured silk dress Kath held up silenced her on the spot, and she made a series of advanced mental calculations. To her annoyance all results ended up in the red, and she sighed disconsolately.
'Go on, try it!' Kath said encouragingly.
Marian eyed the dress longingly.
'Um… It's a lovely dress, but I don't think…' she answered hesitantly.
Kath gave her an understanding smile.
'No worries. But since I've brought it down..?' she tempted.
That was all the encouragement Marian needed. With her first natural smile at the other woman she carefully took the dress and set off towards the fitting room.
Marian gave her reflection a miserable half-smile. The dress was magnificent, and her whole being cried out for her to buy the wretched thing. Logical reasoning about the advantage of food and rent money seemed entirely ineffective. She gave the cool fabric a loving stroke, admiring the way the cutting kept her curves in the strictest of discipline. Deep in thought she jumped at the sound of Kath's voice.
'So. How does it look?'
Marian made a face at the mirror. Apart from the facts that she sold beautiful dresses and was partial to dark red lipstick Marian had no clue as to who this woman was. The thought of that lipstick on George's cheek was still a sore spot, and she scowled irritably in the direction of the voice.
'Um… fine' she responded reluctantly.
Kath peeped in at her with an interested expression that quickly turned into one of delight.
'You look beautiful' she exclaimed in honest admiration.
Marian gave her reflection another yearning stare. The woman was right, she really was looking stunning. She shrugged dismally.
'Yeah, well… It's a beautiful dress, but I couldn't possibly…' Her voice faltered.
'Couldn't possibly what?' Kath asked with a sunny smile.
Marian took a deep breath. Was she being played, or was this woman's really that stupid?
'I can't afford this dress' she admitted wearily.
'Who said anything about afford?' Kath asked with a blank expression.
Marian's eyes widened, and once more her stomach twisted in jealous pain.
'No thanks' she said doggedly. 'I couldn't accept anything like that.'
'Why not?' Kath asked calmly.
For a moment Marian hesitated. Why not? Why not just accept the dress and get out of there as fast as she could? She inhaled deeply and gave a dismissive shrug.
'How do you know George' she countered abruptly, taking the war into enemy territory.
Kath barely blinked at the frosty question, she only gave Marian a thoughtful look before answering.
'Well, to start with he pretty much owns this store.'
'He what?' Marian yelped, and Kath grinned complacently at her.
'Not quite what you expected, huh?' She looked around and gave an amused shrug. 'George M Baxter, proud owner of a fashionable boutique?'
Marian's thoughts were swirling and she gaped stupidly at the smiling female. George had bought this woman a shop? Why? No! She didn't want to know! She winced at the cold, bitter feeling in her stomach. Kath, intently watching Marian's expression, gave her a worried look.
'Don't misunderstand this. I met George when he was studying economy at the university. He lived next door, and I sort of started to hang out at his place.' Her smile turned into an ironic grimace. 'Mostly because he cooked, and I was growing really tired of fast-food.'
Marian listened fixedly, her eyes never leaving Kath's face.
'Do you love him?'
Marian's candid question took them both by surprise. Kath thoughtfully glanced at her.
'Yes, I do' she finally admitted. 'I love him very much.' She smiled sympathetically at the startled Marian. 'But I'm not in love with him. Never been, never will be.'
Marian gave her a searching look and Kath shrugged.
'And no, even though it hurts my pride to admit it, George was never in love with me either.'
She received another dubious look and laughed self mockingly.
'Impossible to believe, I know. But then I haven't always been this bundle of charm you see before you.'
Marian relaxed noticeably, and her lips twitched in response to Kath's infectious grin.
'Okay, so I guess I can take it as Mr Baxter hasn't mentioned me before, then?' Kath observed gently.
Marian raised her shoulders in an apologetic gesture and Kath sniffed in contempt.
'At least some things never change. I tried my best to mend his errant ways, but he was already beyond repair when I first met him. Ah, well.' She sniffed again and her quick eyes darted expectantly towards Marian's ring finger. 'So. What's going on between you two? Don't tell me little Stinky is finally getting married?'
'Little who?' Marian exclaimed incredulously.
'Oh, poor Georgie's going to kill me for this!' Kath grinned wickedly. 'He's never seemed to warm to the name.'
Marian giggled at Kath's complacent expression.
'I wonder why?' she mused. Stinky, huh? Now there was a bit of information she might be able to use.
'So. How about that ring?' Kath resumed.
Marian looked down at her hand and smiled distractedly.
'Ah, yes. The ring.'
'Well?' Kath said expectantly.
'Okay, so we're engaged' Marian acknowledged self-consciously.
'You are? That's fantastic!' Kath exclaimed enthusiastically. She glanced furtively at Marian. 'So why not consider the dress an engagement present?'
Marian gave her reflection another longing look.
'No. Thank you, but no' she said decidedly.
'You're sure?' Kath asked good-naturedly.
Marian drew a deep breath.
'Yes, I'm sure' she said mournfully.
She gave the dress another loving pat before reaching for the zipper.
'Because you do realize that if you don't accept the dress right now, I'm going to have to go over to the bar and ask George where to send it. And I'll have to call UPS and get them to deliver it. And that means I have to fill in one of those horrible delivery notes. And I really, really hate that, so you would make my life so much easier if you'd just take the dress right now.' Kath observed, grinning amiably at the dazed Marian. 'So what do you say?'
Marian gave a small shrug of resignation.
'Yeah, well, when you put it like that…' She smiled weakly. 'I wouldn't want to inconvenience you.'
'Perfect!' Kath grinned triumphantly. She took a step backwards and scrutinized the outfit. 'Let's see. You'll need something nice underneath it too. Now, don't go anywhere!'
Kath quickly slipped out of the dressing room and Marian gave the mirror a worried stare. There was no guessing what kind of loot Kath would return with.
What Kath did return with was a triumphant grin on her lips.
'Try this' she urged, handing Marian a corset of thick, white silk.
Marian gave the small garment a horrified glare.
'You can't be serious' she exclaimed, slowly examining the skimpy piece of clothing.
Kath's grin refused to budge.
'Go on, just try it' she persisted.
Marian glowered at her.
'That was what you said the last time, and look where that got me' she grumbled under her breath.
'Into a most perfect dress' Kath answered unflappably. 'And now it's time to perfect your underwear, so just stop complaining.
Marian shrugged out of the dress in a state of mute rebellion. Kath pretended not to notice and with a resigned sigh Marian accepted the smooth piece of clothing. She struggled valiantly with the garment before finally accepting defeat.
'Um… this wouldn't come in a bigger size, would it?'
Kath, whose face hadn't moved a muscle during Marian's valiant struggle, eyed her thoughtfully.
'It's supposed to be a bit tight' she insisted. 'Stand still and I'll give it a try!'
Marian subsided, and with the corset in a firm grip Kath finally managed to unite woman and lingerie.
'There! See… it's perfect!' Kath said, taking a step backwards to admire her work.
Marian gave her an unconvinced look.
'Uh-huh. And how am I supposed to breath in it?' she asked in a strangled voice.
Kath gave an unperturbed shrug.
'Oh, it will give, don't worry' she said dismissively.
'When?' Marion muttered under her breath. Kath meticulously ignored her complaining, and Marian gave her a disgruntled look. 'This thing wouldn't happen to come with two nice bodybuilders, would it? Cause I don't think I know my neighbours well enough to ask them to help me into…' Marian gave the figure hugging fabric a wary tug 'this.'
'Oh, I'm sure Stinky's prepared to lend a hand. Especially getting you out of it.' Kath's smile broadened at Marian's suddenly crimson cheeks. 'And talking of Stinky' Kath continued a little graver 'maybe we ought to get you back into something less… um… revealing, and join him before he'll report me for kidnapping?'
Marian gave her reflection a thoughtful glare.
'Sure. So. How do I get out of this implement of torture?'
'Don't worry.' Kath gave her a sinful wink. 'This design is intentionally easy to take off.'
Marian's only answer was a blank stare and the giggling Kath began to unfasten the corset.
The design didn't quite live up to its reputation, and it wasn't until thirty minutes later that they finally left the store. Kath quickly guided them into a small bar, and Marian smiled sympathetically at the sight of the tiredlooking Australian talking to the bartender. At the sight of them he quickly pulled himself together and gave Marian's gigantic carrier bag an apprehensive glare.
'I take it there will be no dividend this year, then?' he asked Kath.
She gave a composed shrug.
'Probably not next year either' she replied with a big smile. 'But believe me – it will be well worth it!'
Grinning lazily George looked Marian up and down.
'Now there is something I can believe.'
Their eyes locked, and the warmth of his gaze made Marian forget to breathe. His grin widened and he put an arm around her, dragging her close. Kath gave a huffy groan.
'I really detest happy people' she said with a tantalizing grin. 'And besides… where's the praise for the talented designer?'
George patted her condescendingly on the head.
'Who's a good girl, then? Let's see what we can find for a good designer' he mocked her, reaching for a menu. Kath made a quick dive for it too and easily fought him off.
'That taunting is going to cost you some serious drinks, Stinky.'
George gave her a threatening glare but decided to let the insult slide.
'As I remember it you never took your drinks seriously?' he calmly countered.
Kath stuck her tongue out at him before returning to the set of choices before her.
'Still don't' she answered sweetly. 'But insults I take very seriously, which is why I'm right now scanning this menu for the most expensive drink available.'
George slumped back in his chair and gave a heartfelt moan.
'Ouch. Hit a man where it hurts, why don't you.'
Kath gave him an evil leer.
'You better believe it. Your wallet is mine, Georgie Boy.'
George turned his pleading gaze to Marian.
'Are you going to let her rip your future husband off like this?'
Marian gave him a calculating look before reaching for another menu.
'Of course not. Well, not on her own, anyway' she stated amiably.
George glared disgustedly at her.
'Traitor!' he hissed vehemently.
Marian ignored him, turning to Kath instead.
'The dress deserves champagne, don't you think?'
'Definitely!' Kath agreed with emphasis. 'And caviar!'
Marian was careful not to let her face reveal her hate of caviar.
'Of course. What about strawberries?'
Kath looked troubled.
'Is this really strawberry season?'
Marian bestowed an angelic smile on both Kath and George.
'No, but that only makes them so much more expensi… I mean tasty.'
George gave a feeble groan.
'Now I remember why I fled England' he said with a crushing glance at Kath. 'And as for you…' he said, turning to Marian.
She tried to look subdued when she raised her gaze to his, but the mocking glitter in her eyes exposed her.
'You can have anything you want' he continued in a soft, husky voice.
Marian's heart executed a sudden jitterbug. George's warm, intent look seemed to wipe away the last of her resentment, and her eyes filled with tears of love. She hurriedly hid her face in his shirtfront. Holding her firmly he glared portentously at Kath who with an innocent expression was reciting "Georgie porgie pudding pie, kissed the girls and made them cry".
A slightly more composed Marian emerged from George's arms and taking pity on him she decided on a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. Kath subsided to a glass of wine while George himself decided on another beer. They brought their drinks over to a small table where George leaned back in his seat and listened to Marian describing their first encounter to an amused Kath. In her aspiration to explain a particularly lively episode Marian gesticulated wildly, and in her enthusiasm she managed a direct hit on her full juice glass. The content spread in a beautiful pattern over George's shirt and jeans, and both Marian and Kath stared at the debacle in terrified silence. The surprised George contemplated his drenched clothes for a few seconds before reaching for a napkin.
'I'm so sorry!' the terror-stricken Marian stuttered.
'Uh-huh' George grunted noncommittally without ceasing to mop at the mess.
'I didn't mean to…' Her voice faltered, and she made an apologetic gesture towards his shirt.
'Uh-huh' George calmly repeated, still focusing on his shirt.
Marian turned a pleading look on the wide-eyed Kath who was watching the scene in captivated horror.
'You do realize that there are less obvious ways of getting a man out of his clothes, don't you?' Kath asked slowly.
Turning a beautiful shade of puce Marian sent her a murderous glare, but only got one of polite interest in return. With her heart sinking steadily she turned back to George, who by now was being assisted by the bartender, a towel, and large quantities of water. Her heart plunged even lower. She hesitantly reached out and touched George's arm, and when he turned around she gasped at the gigantic yellow stain that was still spreading over his light shirt. Wincing guiltily she looked beseechingly up at him, and her heart fluttered in relief at the dancing amusement in his eyes.
'So. What do you think? Not really my colour, huh?' he asked a little shakily.
'Umm… not really, no.' Marian agreed uncomfortably.
Kath readily presented him with her wineglass, but the offer was quickly turned down.
'Thanks, but red wouldn't be my first choice either' George observed dryly.
Kath shrugged composedly.
'Yeah, well. You really think it can get much worse?'
George inspected his shirt with interest.
'No. But I think it can get a bit wetter.'
Marian gave the ruined garment a doubtful look.
'Are you sure?'
'Not really. But I'm going to try' he said, moving towards the bathroom.
When he returned it was clear that he'd been right, but at least the dripping shirt was markedly less stained. It was also more revealing, clinging to his body like a translucent second skin.
'I think I could do with a shower and some new clothes' he observed. 'And considering the time it took you to get into whatever is in that bag…' He gave Marian a lazy grin - which turned out to be wasted on her since her mesmerized stare was fixed at his exposed chest.
'Uh-huh' she answered distractedly.
He turned to Kath to take their leave and she quickly extended a dinner invitation for their return to London. George cautiously accepted.
'Dinner? At your place?' he said incredulously. 'You do realize that frozen pizza isn't really considered dinner, don't you?'
'You do realize that I've managed to survive since you left town, don't you?' Kath retorted with a sniff. 'And besides,' she continued with a sheepish smile 'there's this perfect take-away place just around the corner.'
Marian gave George a concerned glance when they left the shopping mall. Even though he did his best not to show his weariness the deep lines marking his face was a telltale sign. She thoughtfully chewed her lower lip.
'This dinner we're supposed to attend…' she began tentatively. 'There isn't any way of getting out of it, is there?'
She thought she perceived a sudden hopefulness in his appearance.
'There might be' he answered cautiously. 'You're not getting crook, are you?' he continued in a distressed tone.
Marian shook her head.
'No, but I slept kind of bad yesterday' she acknowledged with an embarrassed shrug. 'Don't know why…' she added with an ironic grimace.
'Well, I guess it must be contagious' George smiled at her. 'I didn't get much sleep either.'
They exchanged a long glance.
'So. No dinner then?' he finally asked.
'No. Let's just get something quick to eat before returning to the hotel' she decided.
George gave his shirt an uncertain glare.
'I'm not really equipped for restaurants right now' he observed doubtfully.
Marian contemplated his clingy shirt with an appreciative grin.
'Oh, I don't know. I think you look quite appetizing' she said sweetly.
George glared at her and answered something inaudible. She laughed sympathetically at his suddenly red cheeks.
'Come on! I know the perfect place!' She eagerly dragged him off down the street.
He gave her another doubtful look but followed her without objections. A few minutes later Marian stopped in front of a somewhat crowded McDonalds and George gave a pained groan.
'So this is your idea of a perfect place?' he said in an incredulous tone.
Marian gave an unperturbed shrug.
'Well, I'm hungry, and this place serves food.' She looked at him. 'And I don't think you'd get past any self-respecting Maître d' in that rig anyway.'
George had to admit the truth in this statement, and he reluctantly followed her into the restaurant. Marian suddenly started to giggle, and George gave her a quizzical glance.
'I was warned that this was where you'd take me on that first dinner' she hiccupped.
He gave the restaurant a blank look.
'What, here?' he asked in bewilderment.
'Not in London, no' she answered acidly. 'McDonalds. I bet they would love to hear about our first romantic London dinner back in the Crossing.'
George glared menacingly at her.
'I bet they would love to hear about your attempt to drown me in orange juice too' he answered darkly.
She gave him a thoughtful look.
'You're probably right there' she acknowledged. 'All right. I'll keep quiet if you will.'
'Deal!' he quickly agreed and they both turned their attention to the menu at the wall.
Marian tore off a piece of bread and pensively chewed on it while watching George who was suspiciously ogling his burger.
'It is edible you know' she said encouragingly before looking down at her own tray and doubtfully adding 'I think.'
'Is this some kind of punishment?' he asked miserably.
She gave him a sweet smile.
'You done anything to deserve one?' she returned interestedly.
George ignored her.
'Well, at least it's warm' he pointed out, still eyeing his food with hesitation. He took a deep breath before tucking into the offending object. 'No, I was wrong' he continued with his mouth full of lukewarm hamburger.
Marian glared at him.
'This is the last time I'll take you out to dinner' she threatened.
George gave his hamburger another distasteful look.
'This is the last time I'll let you' he observed dryly.
She gave him a piercing look and abruptly changed topic.
'So. Kath?' she said expectantly.
He guiltily lowered his eyes.
'Ah, yes. Kath' he stalled.
'Tell me about her' Marian prompted.
Seemingly lost in reminiscence George smiled tenderly, and Marian could once again feel the jealousy showing its ugly head.
'There is not much to tell really' he shrugged. 'I met her when I was at the London School of Economics. She lived at the apartment next to mine, and she used to eat all my food.'
He smiled at her and Marian's grimace might be interpreted as a return smile.
'Were you…' She hesitated for a second 'romantically involved?'
She winced at the stilted expression, but George didn't seem to notice.
'I don't know if that's the correct phrase' he answered hesitantly.
Marian's heart smarted but her voice was steady when she asked him the same question as she had thrown at Kath earlier.
'Do you love her?'
He gave her a surprised glance.
'Yes, I do' he answered slowly. 'I don't think I would have lasted those 18 month if it weren't for Kath. But there were never anything romantic between us. As I said – I was only going to be here for 18 months.'
Marian gave him a look of mild amusement and he laughed shamefacedly.
'Well, I was much younger then. I must have gone batty in my old age. And besides…' He paused and looked deeply into her eyes. 'She wasn't you.'
He reached out and squeezed her hand, and Marian's emotionally unstable spirits suddenly spread their wings and soared over her languishing jealousy.
They walked silently back to the hotel, both engrossed in their own happiness. Outside Marian's door they stopped irresolutely, neither wanting to part. The awkward silence grew long before Marian with a glance at George finally closed the distance between them. She reached up to kiss him, and he helpfully pulled her against him. The kiss quickly deepened into a display of pure pleasure. Moaning softly she pressed herself even closer against him and felt his eager response. He slowly steered her up against the wall, pinning her against it with his body. Another moan of desire escaped her as she impatiently tugged at his wet shirt. He disentangled his hands from her hair and fervently ripped the shirt open. Marian let her hands explore his firm torso, enjoying the feeling of his warm, soft skin.
'Mmm… nice' George muttered against her lips as her hands outlined his chest.
He had by now found her breasts, and her breath caught at his gentle touch. He laughed huskily and his caresses grew more focused. They were both breathing heavily when he suddenly released her and took a step backwards. She could see her desire reflected in his heavy lidded eyes before he abruptly broke their entwined gaze and with her wrist in a firm grip led her towards his room. Due to his shaking hands he needed three attempts to open the door. Inside the door he quickly let her go.
'Now that was… interesting' he said, still breathing heavily.
Marin nodded mutely.
'I don't think I would have noticed if the royal guard would have passed' he continued shakily.
Marian was focusing on regaining her breath, and since she wasn't sure where this conversation was leading, she just gave a noncommittal shrug.
'Anyway. Since I can't seem to control myself around you, there will be no more kissing' he said, trying hard not to catch her eyes.
Marian gave him a look of distaste.
'And why am I supposed to suffer because you can't restrain yourself?' she asked sardonically.
He gave her an angelic smile.
'Because you, my dear, are no better at controlling yourself than I am' he mocked her.
She acknowledged this with a short nod.
'True' she agreed. 'But on the other hand… I'm not trying to.'
He made a gesture of resignation.
'It's not that I don't want to…' he said.
'Oh, I'm quite sure that you want to' Marian interrupted, lowering her glance to the telltale sign with an expressive smirk.
George blushed but otherwise ignored her.
'But' he resumed 'I can't.'
She gave him an astonished look and he groaned with frustration.
'Okay, I can' he growled 'but I won't. I'm going to do this right. And besides' he added with a wry smile 'I could never face Violet again if I didn't.'
'I won't tell if you won't' she grinned hopefully.
He shook his head and gave her a regretful smile.
'I'm now going to take a very cold shower' he said. 'Why don't you check if there's anything worth watching on TV?'
He left the room and Marian smiled to herself. Despite her body's aching disappointment she couldn't help feeling an excited tingle. Maybe things were worth waiting for? She sighed. Maybe. But patience had never been one of her virtues. And if he thought he'd be able to wear white at the wedding… She sniffed determinately. Now that was just not going to happen. She mutinously retrieved the remote control and began to zap through the channels. When George returned she was laying on the bed seemingly absorbed by an old western. She looked up when he slowly approached the bed. He smiled uncertainly.
'Do you want something from room service?'
She gave him an innocent glance.
'Do they have strawberries?' she asked blankly.
He glared menacingly at her and she smiled sweetly up at him. He took another couple of steps towards the bed.
'So… Changed you're mind, have you?' she asked hopefully.
He frowned at her.
'You're not going to make this easy for me, are you?'
She gave him an appraising look.
'Not really, no' she observed cheerfully.
He gave her an exasperated smile.
'Didn't think so' he agreed. 'Move over.'
She obediently moved and he sat down beside her. Leaning comfortably against the headboard he grinned invitingly.
'Come here' he said, making room for her beside him..
She happily nuzzled up against him, leaning her cheek against his chest. He pulled her closer and placed a couple of kisses on her hair before turning his attention towards the television set. Marian tried to do the same, but her back was protesting against the uncomfortable position. Wriggling into a more satisfactory position she tried to settle down too.