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"What must you think I am?" exclaimed Julian. "Just because I said that - my God, I wish I'd never told you."

"I didn't mean it like that," said Hilary.

It was only the facade of patience; her head ached, and she was already beginning to wish that she had never brought up the topic. Or that they had some venue for it other than a dingy hotel room in Manchester, the only place that she had been able to find on such short notice for Julian's forty-eight hour leave.

A net curtain fluttered forlornly in the air from a window that had resolutely refused to open more than three inches, even after the application of all of Julian's strength. Outside there was the noise of traffic. Hilary draped herself across the bed, uncomfortable in the warmth of the August evening. She was beginning to feel desperately claustrophobic but neither dinner nor dancing could justifiably be suggested now. Julian had the bit between his teeth.

"One can hardly see what else a person could mean by it," he said.

"You told me yourself that you liked Alec."

"That I liked him. And you think that means that I could - could..."

He trailed off helplessly, shaking his head.

To him the idea was apparently unimaginable, as remote as the moon. To Hilary it was not unimaginable at all. She could with Alec Deacon, rather easily, if the stars happened to align that way (which, as she was well aware, they never would). For this reason she felt that she could muster a good deal of sympathy for Julian's situation; apparently Julian did not see it that way.

"Do you really think it's as wrong as all that?" she asked lightly.

"Yes," he insisted. "Yes. We're married, Hilary. I took a vow to you; I meant it. And now, because you think I'm that sort of man - like Wilde, my God - you assume I've no sense of decency or self-control. Well, I don't intend ever to wind up like that, however fond I may be of the theatre."

"Darling, that isn't it at all."

Hilary had the feeling that she had lost him long before. Julian's mind was running somewhere on the pages of Plato, while her own argument had been far more practical.

"After all," added Julian with an air of conclusiveness, "what would you think if I behaved as if I expected you to go running off with other men? Or women, come to that?"

He had turned fetchingly, endearingly pink, as if he considered even hinting at this last to be beyond the pale. Hilary thought glancingly of Lisa, and the Clares' semi-detached marriage, and once again realised how wide was the gulf of understanding between herself and Julian.

"I only said," she answered calmly, "that I knew we'd be a long way from one another, for a long time, and that I should quite understand if you found that difficult. One knows that men often do. If someone else's company made it easier for you, I would understand that as well. I only want you to know that you can tell me about it. Whether it happens to be a woman or a man."

It was the horror of not being told that seemed the worst to Hilary. She thought she might bear anything if only it were out in the open - might welcome it, even, if it meant that Julian had someone to look after him when she was far away. Perhaps it was not so strange that she could envision that love arising most easily for Julian from the comradeship of men.

"Of course it's difficult." Julian sprang up from the low chair in which his long limbs had been imprisoned. He came to the bed, knelt on the floor by her side and without preamble began to kiss her neck, the hollow of her collarbone.

"Of course, of course," he murmured. "But Hilary, it's you. I don't want anyone but you; I never shall, not as long as I live."

However long that may be, thought Hilary bleakly. It was not such a promise to make in the summer of 1940.

"My dearest," she said and put her arms around him, though his body was hot against hers. "As you like, then."