Well, it's very sad but we've come to the end of the story. Of course, the ending's got to be a fluffy one! Hint, guess what audio book I've been listening to lately?

= 11 =

Much, much later, with Ruth's fridge and cupboard filled to the brim, Harry's worn suitcase in the bedroom, and dinner served and eaten, they retire to the living room to enjoy the last hours of the weekend. With the remains of a bottle of Shiraz on the coffee table, they recline on the sofa in each other's arms, talking softly while the gentle sounds of Debussy play on her stereo.

"I suppose I'll have to ring Ros one of these days, before she sends in the reinforcements."

"What, you've not yet told her that you found me?"

He shakes his head. "The last time I called was from Cairo airport, just before I got on the plane to Dubai." he admits, "And I've been rather preoccupied since."

He kisses her gently.


"So now it's my fault that you've been busy, is it?"

"Certainly – well, it certainly was last night."

"When it was me who was trying to get some much needed sleep."

"You've got a strange way of going about it, trying to kiss me senseless." he says, kissing the crux of her neck. "Why don't you count sheep like everyone else?"

"That's just a myth. Who on earth does that anyway?"

"It hasn't worked for me since I was a boy, but we can modify it slightly so it shall work. How are you for counting kisses?"

She returns a kiss on the corner of his pouting lips. "I'm all for it – when it's bedtime."

"I'm ready now."

"When it's barely eight o'clock? I don't think so."

"I am genuinely tired, you know."

"I'll say. Well, if we are about to head for bed, then a bedtime story would be appropriate."

He cocks his head in that endearing way he has. "And what do you have in mind?"

Reaching down to her work bag, she scrummages through it to pull out a battered novel.

He grins. "Thomas Hardy? And here I am thinking that you're an Austen girl."

"Jane Austen has her place," she explains, "But when I want drama I reach for Hardy; and Tess is my favourite."

He isn't a fan of Hardy in general, but even he has read Tess of the D'Urbervilles and been enamoured by its beautiful, vivid prose.

"Any passage in particular?"

"The beginning shall do."

Taking the book from her, he finds the first page and begins to read.

Ruth has only asked the favour in order to indulge in his soothing, seductive voice, yet even she is surprised to find that he is not only a competent reader, but an enthralling one. He changes between RP and West Country accents with the consummate ease of an actor, until she no longer hears Harry but the characters.

At the chapter's conclusion she lets out a well-satisfied sigh.

"I didn't realise you can act so well."

He simply shrugs his shoulders. "I was in the drama club at school, if that explains anything."

"So was I, but even I can't manage a convincing West Country accent."

"It's because of my best friend, Bill. He was an extraordinary actor, could imitate anyone's accent convincingly. The larks we pulled as kids were something to behold. I'd pick out some random destination we'd have to talk our way to, where the objective was to be shouted a dozen free drinks at the roughest pub we could find. Since I was always the accomplice I was forced to pick up a few regional accents as well. We went to Dorset several times so I certainly got a lot of practice; my West Yorkshire accent isn't bad either."

She beams. "You're a man of many talents, Pearce. And since you're so good at it, why don't you read me…" She flips a few pages, "This?"

He reads, "Tess Durbeyfield at this time of her life was a mere vessel of emotion untinctured by experience. The dialect was on her tongue to some extent, despite the village school: the characteristic intonation of that dialect for this district being the voicing approximately rendered by the syllable ur, probably as rich an utterance as any to be found in human speech. The pouted-up deep red mouth to which this syllable was native had hardly as yet settled into its definite shape, and her lower lip had a way of thrusting the middle of her top one upward, when they closed together after a word."

He went on to narrate the story of how the picturesque country girl met Angel Clare, her would-be husband, at the May Dance in a Dorset field, and how he had asked not her, but another, to dance.

"The church clock struck, when suddenly the student said that he must leave--he had been forgetting himself-- he had to join his companions. As he fell out of the dance his eyes lighted on Tess Durbeyfield, whose own large orbs wore, to tell the truth, the faintest aspect of reproach that he had not chosen her. He, too, was sorry then that, owing to her backwardness, he had not observed her; and with that in his mind he left the pasture.

On account of his long delay he started in a flying-run down the lane westward, and had soon passed the hollow and mounted the next rise. He had not yet overtaken his brothers, but he paused to get breath, and looked back. He could see the white figures of the girls in the green enclosure whirling about as they had whirled when he was among them. They seemed to have quite forgotten him already.

All of them, except, perhaps, one. This white shape stood apart by the hedge alone. From her position he knew it to be the pretty maiden with whom he had not danced. Trifling as the matter was, he yet instinctively felt that she was hurt by his oversight. He wished that he had asked her; he wished that he had inquired her name. She was so modest, so expressive, she had looked so soft in her thin white gown that he felt he had acted stupidly.

However, it could not be helped, and turning, and bending himself to a rapid walk, he dismissed the subject from his mind."

At the end of the page they pause; he to gauge her reaction, she to stare back in pure wonderment.

"I think I found my next audio book."

He draws her close. "If it makes you happy I shall read the whole book from cover to cover."

And pulling his head down to hers, she whispers, "It shall make me very happy indeed."

"Then I think my call to Ros will have to wait until morning."

He does keep his resolution, calling Ros after breakfast and giving Ruth a brief chance to thank her, too. But the protracted call did play havoc with Ruth's schedule, and it is a minor miracle that she makes it to the Council office by nine.

"So, how's your weekend, Rita?" Hayley asks as Ruth splays files all over her desk.

"Oh, fine." replies Ruth, unable to hide the sparkle in her eyes.

Her friend gives her a curious glance. "There's something's different about you this morning. Something tells me that you've taken my advice."

"I have, yes. I – I went on a date."

Hayley's eyes pop. "And?"

"Well, it started as a kind of a day out, but before I knew it it turned into a weekend-long thing."

"Who the hell with? Do I know him?"

Ruth shakes her head. "An old friend from back home, in the UK, I mean. He came on a surprise visit, we met up, and…"

She follows with a very rough outline of their weekend.

"Oh my God, I'm so happy for you!" cries Hayley after administering a giant hug. "Tell me, what does he look like?"

"Like that."

She looks through the window to where Harry is standing, waves, and receives a good-naturedly wave in reply.

"Distinguished-looking, kind face – I approve."

"Well, you've not much chance of deterring me, not when he's moved in with me."

"Already? Ah, what a whirlwind romance!"

"You might say that," Ruth chuckles, "If six years can be called a whirlwind."

Thank you to Thomas Hardy for writing such a beautiful book. Thank you for reading. As always, a review will make me very happy, truly!