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‘I’m sorry, are you Gilbert Blythe?’

He turned round and stared into a pale freckle-powdered face with two enormous gray eyes, boring into his with intensity and framed by stray strands of vividly red hair.

‘Er- yes? Can I help you?’

The delicate brown eyelashes framing the eerie eyes fluttered uneasily. ‘Can we go somewhere quieter?’

Gilbert stared. The nervousness of the girl who stood before him was almost palpable. He looked down at her slender hands, which she was wringing in a piteously imploring gesture.

‘Yes, of course,’ he stuttered, looking round the crowded shopping mall aisle in which they were standing. ‘Come on.’

He moved in the direction of a nearby coffee shop, which was relatively empty. The girl kept close to his side, but when he turned towards her to give her a reassuring smile she met his eyes with a reserved, drawn expression.

They sat down in a far corner of the small room, and Gilbert ordered two coffees. Then he turned to his companion with a questioning gaze.

‘Wait till they bring the coffee,’ she said.

The coffee arrived presently, a strong-smelling inky brew. The girl stared into her cup fixedly for a moment, and then she raised her startling eyes to his.

‘Phil Gordon told me all about you. About your studies the financial trouble you’re having.’

Gilbert stared. ‘Yes?’ he managed, wondering whether this was some particularly convoluted practical joke.

‘I can help you if you agree to help me,’ the girl went on dispassionately. ‘It’s a business proposition.’

‘A-- a business proposition?’ repeated Gilbert, completely bewildered. He was beginning to have serious doubts as to the mental balance of his interlocutor. She was trembling with agitation, and yet she continued to speak in a perfectly matter-of-fact way.

‘Yes. And please, please promise to at least consider it before you refuse.’

For the first time, he caught the sprinklings of a foreign accent in her speech. He wondered idiotically whether she was a special agent employed by a secret service organisation to implicate him in some shady affair.

‘Do you promise?’ the girl prompted, and Gilbert realised that he had been staring.

‘Well-- I suppose I do.’

She sighed, looking down into her coffee cup.

‘I--‘ she swallowed, and met his eyes with a nervously twitching face. ‘I want you to marry me.’

Silence.

‘Excuse me?’ he managed after a moment of dumbfounded gaping. ‘Are you-- is this some sort of joke?’

‘No, it isn’t,’ the girl replied quietly. ‘I need a husband with American citizenship and I need him quickly. You need money to complete your studies and you need it now. I’ll pay you twice the sum you need.’

Gilbert shook his head slowly. ‘I’m sorry, but--‘

The wide gray eyes flashed like steel.

‘Wait,’ she put in with more emotion than she had yet shown. ‘You’ve said you’d at least consider it. I know you probably think I’m an escaped lunatic,’ she added acidly, ‘and maybe I am. But, since I am not a homicidal maniac and I don’t propose to be the mother of your children, this should not concern you. All I ask is that you help me in return for help.’

‘What is your name?’ was all he managed in reply.

‘Anne Shirley.’

Some slight inflection of hesitation in her tone put him on the alert.

‘Is this your real name?’

Her face became even more tense. ‘Yes. Yes, it is.’

Gilbert was feeling more uncomfortable by the second. The girl was looking helpless enough, but at the same time there was some ferocious quality in her face - and especially in her eyes - that made him wonder just what she might be running away from.

‘Well then?’ Anne Shirley’s voice broke in upon his uneasy cogitations.

‘I’m-- I’m sorry. I don’t think I can do this,’ he blurted out. ‘I--‘

The girl waved one of her restless hands dismissively.

‘Don’t be sorry,’ she said calmly, even though her whole face was beginning to twitch nervously again. ‘I’ll simply have to find someone else. There’s probably men enough who’ll be happy to take my money in return for signing a piece of paper.’

The coolness with which she spoke, and which contrasted so oddly with her visibly high-strung state, made Gilbert’s heart give an unpleasant lurch.

‘Do you propose to just go around and present you offer to randomly chosen men?’ he asked with some exasperation.

‘Well, they may be more favourably inclined than you have been,’ she replied, getting up from the table. ‘I’m sorry I’ve taken up so much of your time.’ She gave him an unexpected, albeit weak smile. ‘Keep your fingers crossed for me.’

He watched her rejoin the crowd in the aisle outside with an odd feeling rising up in his chest. After a few more seconds, he got up, threw the required amount of money on the table beside their untouched coffee cups, and practically ran out of the shop.

He looked around, trying to spot that vivid head of red hair which he was sure should be easy enough to find in any crowd. After a moment of agitated scrutiny, he saw her some distance away, talking to a tall, haughty-looking man.

Cursing himself for his own stupidity, he rushed in their direction. The man to whom Anne Shirley was talking turned out to be, of all people, Royal Gardner. He was looking down at her with an expression on his face that Gilbert knew only too well the meaning of.

‘- if you could help me,’ he heard Anne say.

‘I’m sure it’ll be pure pleasure to--‘

‘Here you are, Anne!’ said Gilbert rather more loudly than was necessary, actuated by an impulse he could not control. ‘I’ve asked you to wait for me, love, haven’t I? It’s terribly easy to get lost here your first time around.’

Anne turned to him with a thunderous look in her eyes. He caught her hand in his and pulled her to his side. Roy Gardner was watching this exchange with raised eyebrows.

‘I assume you no longer need my help,’ he said with a charmingly mournful smile directed at Anne.

‘No, she doesn’t,’ shot back Gilbert before the girl could answer.

Roy transferred his eyes to him. ‘Your friend doesn’t look too happy to see you, Blythe,’ he observed with derision.

‘To the contrary,’ Anne spoke up in an unexpectedly assured tone. ‘I’m simply speechless with happiness. I’m sorry to have bothered you, Mr--‘

‘Just Roy.’

‘Come on, love,’ said Gilbert, tugging at her hand. ‘I’d like to get our shopping done as quickly as possible.’

‘See you, Roy,’ said Anne, giving him a smile over her shoulder.

Gilbert pulled her on until he was sure Gardner could no longer see them. Then, he let go of her hand and turned round, only to receive a very unexpected and very painful slap on the cheek.

‘Hey!’

‘You fool!’ the girl spat at him furiously. ‘How dare you! He would have helped me!’

‘Gardner?’ he asked angrily. ‘He’s a scum.’

‘I’m a scum as well, so we would have been well matched! He would have no problem accepting my scummy money in return for his services!’

She was fairly livid with anger.

‘Listen-- Anne,’ Gilbert said quietly, noticing that people were beginning to stare. ‘I’ll help you. You don’t want to get involved with people like Gardner.’

An acrid smile pulled up the corners of her lips. ‘And why should I want to get involved with people like you? I don’t need an over-scrupulous prig. I need someone who’s good at pretending.’

‘I thought you needed someone trustworthy,’ he countered hotly. ‘And Gardner isn’t.’

‘Are you?’ she demanded with a sneer. ‘Because you seem to change your mind rather often.’

‘Not once I’ve given my word.’

Anne gave him a wary look. ‘Will you marry me, then?’ she asked pointedly.

‘I need-- I need to ask you a question or two first,’ he said. And, seeing anger darken her face again, added quickly, ‘But not here. Let’s get out.’

He expected her to oppose him fiercely, but, to his surprise, she followed him more or less meekly out of the shopping mall and into the dark January street.

‘Listen, I’ve got no time to waste,’ said Anne curtly. ‘I don’t fancy the prospect of trailing around after dark on an evening like this, and I’ve left all my belongings at Phil’s.’

Despite her obvious impatience with him, Gilbert could see that she was even more nervous than when she had first approached him. Her eyes darted uneasily here and there, as though she was expecting danger to jump out at her from behind the nearest corner.

‘I live in a flat just around the block,’ he said matter-of-factly, even though the situation was feeling more unreal by the minute. ‘We can talk there without worrying about people overhearing.’

‘All right.’

The short distance was traversed in silence. They went up the two steep flight of stairs and into the small one-room flat that Gilbert had been living in since the beginning of the semester.

He switched on the lamp.

‘It’s rather dingy,’ he said with an awkward laugh. ‘I hope you don’t mind. I’m not particularly well-off, as you seem to be aware.’

Anne merely nodded, to all appearances completely indifferent to her surroundings. Without taking off her outer clothing, she confronted Gilbert with her arms folded belligerently across her chest.

‘What do you want to know?’ she asked bluntly.

Gilbert flinched a little at her tone. He tossed his keys onto the table and took off his coat. Anne stood immobile, watching him.

‘How do you know Phil?’ he asked, selecting the question which he thought the least likely to offend her.

He was evidently wrong in that assumption, for Anne’s face instantly hardened. However, she responded with reasonable clam.

‘I met her when she was spending her summer vacation in Austria. It was long ago, when we were just girls.’

Gilbert couldn’t help smiling at that. ‘You make it sound as though that was a really long time ago.’

‘It was. I’m older than I look. I was just fifteen then. It seems a lifetime ago.’

That last comment was made in a tone into which a yearning note had crept, and Gilbert looked curiously at the girl standing before him.

As soon as she perceived his scrutiny, she shook herself out of her little lapse.

‘Anyway,’ she resumed crisply. ‘I’m twenty-four now, and we haven’t met in person for nine years. But Phil remembered me and helped me when I came to her like she had promised she would. Anything else?’

‘Well, I guess it’s only natural that I ask why you’re doing this.’

Anne’s face expressed nothing.

‘I told you. I need an American husband, so that they can’t make me go back to where I came from--‘

Where did you come from?’

The question slipped out of his mouth before he could stop it. Anne, however, didn’t flinch.

‘That’s immaterial,’ she replied. ‘It has nothing to do with you.’

‘You’re running away from something - or someone - aren’t you?’ Now that he had put his foot in it, Gilbert considered he could as well press on. At the worst she would slap him again.

She clasped her hands together so tightly her knuckles went white.

‘If you want to know whether in marrying me you’re incurring the risk of being pursued by the tyrannical parents I ran away from, you may rest assured. I’m an orphan. My parents were both single children, and so am I. There isn’t any family to come looking for me here.’

‘Well. . . I’m sorry for that,’ he said awkwardly.

‘I’m not. Anything else?’

Gilbert ran a hand across his face. What was he to do? The girl was in some terrible trouble; so much was evident. If he rejected her offer, she’d go to Gardner or someone even less trustworthy. And the fact that she wasn’t exactly easy to deal with meant that she would not receive much sympathy from men of Gardner’s type after the attraction of her looks wore off.

‘Listen, Anne,’ he said, choosing his words carefully. ‘I don’t really like the idea of doing something like this for money. It simply doesn’t seem right.’

Her eyes went wide. ‘Phil didn’t exaggerate when she said you were the last extant gentleman, did she?’ She sighed impatiently, pushing stray hair away from her eyes. ‘You need that money, and I have more than I have any use for. If you agree to help me, you’re entitled to some kind of reward. Besides, I don’t believe you want to drop out of college.’

‘Of course I don’t. But--‘

‘Then either you take both me and the money or else I go out and find that handsome boy you scared off at the mall. He won’t have any scruples holding him back from accepting his due payment.’

‘He won’t have any scruples holding him back from taking advantage of the situation,’ Gilbert retorted crossly. ‘Don’t you know a crook when you see one?’

‘Do you?’ she asked quietly, and something in her tone, some raw vulnerability, made him look up sharply. She met his eyes defiantly.

‘I do,’ he replied in a gentler tone. ‘And I know you aren’t one. You’re just a person in a rather nasty corner who needs help.’

‘So are you.’

They looked at each other silently for a moment, each daring the other to look down first. Neither did.

‘Fine,’ said Gilbert finally, resigned. ‘I’ll do it.’

‘You’ll accept the money?’

He nodded, swallowing hard.

‘Shall we shake hands on it?’ she suggested, her manner unexpectedly playful.

Gilbert couldn’t help returning the shy smile she gave him.

‘Deal?’ He proffered his large, bony hand with an incipient grin.

‘Deal,’ Anne replied, slipping her slender fingers into his.

As he looked down at their connected hands he noticed that her skin was cracked from the cold.

‘You ought to remember to wear gloves,’ he remarked mechanically.

Anne snatched her hand away and hid it behind her back. ‘Thank you very much, Mr Doctor-to-Be,’ she remarked caustically.

There was a moment of awkward silence, and then, gulping, Gilbert asked,

‘Well then. . . when do you want to do it?’

‘Tomorrow.’

His eyebrows shot up. Anne returned his stare unflinchingly, although there were spots of deep crimson on both her cheeks.

‘I told you I needed to do it quickly.’

‘Yes, but tomorrow? How--‘ he stopped, running his hands through his hair. ‘How do you propose to get everything ready?’

‘Get what ready?’ she countered with a sneer. ‘Phil will act as my witness. You get a reliable boy to act as yours. I’ve got the rings. You put on a suit, and we go to the nearest registry office. You lie that you will be with me for better and worse till death do us part, and then you never again have to consider giving up school because you’re short of money. It’s that easy,’ she finished with exasperated emphasis.

Gilbert felt extremely uncomfortable. You lie that you’ll be with me for better and worse till death do us part - the tone in which Anne had uttered these words had been deprecating, derisive even, and all his better judgement railed against making so light of something that ought to be a heartfelt, honest promise given to the person you love with the intention of doing everything in your power to carry it out.

Then he looked up and met Anne’s eyes. Those wide, starry, frightened, ferocious eyes.

‘All right,’ he heard himself say. ‘What time will you be here?’

‘About two in the afternoon. Can you find someone sensible to act as witness by then?’

‘Yes,’ he replied calmly, appalled at the prospect. ‘Yes, I will. You’ll bring Phil, right?’

‘Yes. I’m going over to her flat right now.’

He noticed the slight shiver that ran over her as she said those words, and said quickly, internally marvelling at his own matter-of-factness,

‘Come on then, I’ll walk you over. It’s gotten really late, and it’s easy to get lost if you don’t know the town too well.’

She accepted without demur, but also without any expressions of gratefulness. The way to the more expensive part of the town where the flat owned by Phil Gordon was located passed in silence charged with unasked questions.

Then, with a quiet ‘goodbye’, Anne was gone, and Gilbert was left with his brain reeling, his head aching, and his heart thumping in his chest.

Chapter Text

The forenoon of the following day was spent by Gilbert in wondering whether by two in the afternoon all he was going to see at the threshold of his flat was his own  imagination, of which Anne Shirley, with her haunting eyes and fiery hair, had been an extremely lifelike figment.

Early in the morning he called up Moody Spurgeon and asked him to come over at half past one. Moody, an exceptionally earnest philosophy student, was a person who could be trusted to perform the duty of marriage witness without asking undue questions: his interests did not tend towards the mundane world of interpersonal relationships.

Then he realised he didn’t really know the location of the nearest registrar, and set out to remedy this omission. He also, with anxiety gnawing at his insides, typed the name of his wife-to-be into the search bar of the Internet browser; nothing, however, came up: no Anne Shirley answering in appearance to the person he met yesterday existed on any social platform.

Moody appeared punctually, vindicating all Gilbert’s highest hopes of him: he was dressed with a neatness rarely achieved by college students, and after a quiet ‘Hello’ settled down in a chair by the window and proceeded to read absorbedly from a small black book he took out of his pocket.

It was almost half past two when a knock on the door put Gilbert’s agony to an end by making him sure the previous days’ occurrences had not been something he’d dreamt up.

‘Hello, Gilbert! Hi there, Moody!’ Philippa Gordon bustled inside looking, as always, exquisite, expensive, and expansive.

In comparison, Anne was looking very subdued in her gray overcoat. She was pale, but far more collected than when Gilbert last saw her. She greeted him with a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes: they remained watchful and vaguely pained.

‘Step out here for a second,’ she murmured, tugging at his sleeve. ‘I need to tell you something.’

He obeyed, following her out into to corridor and closing the door to the flat. Then he turned round to face her, schooling his features into a polite smile.

‘It’s just this,’ she said in a feverish undertone. ‘I want you to know I didn’t steal that money, or got it in any illegal way at all. I inherited it. I swear that it’s true. You don’t need to be afraid on that score.’

‘I-‘ he stuttered, frowning a little. ‘I never thought anything of the kind, you know.’

She raised her eyebrows. ‘Then why object to taking it?’

‘Because-‘ he began, and then broke off helplessly. ‘Would you like to get married for mercenary motives? Wouldn’t you- I don’t know, despise yourself for doing something like that?’

To his surprise, she let out a harsh, penetrating laugh. ‘Trust me, there are much worse and more despicable things a girl can be driven to do than marrying for money. If I allowed things like that to get to me, I should have had to throw myself under a train long ago.’

He stared. She pursued her lips and looked away.

‘Anything more you wish to ask me before we go?’

‘Well- I suppose-‘ She looked up at him expectantly, and he struggled on, ‘I suppose we’re expected to live together, right?’

‘Oh, certainly,’ Anne replied with a wry smile. ‘There are institutions checking up on those things, you know.’

‘And do you- do you propose to move in here?’

‘Why not?’

There was evidently to be no end to the number of unnerving things destined to be said between them.

‘Because,’ Gilbert said with deliberation, ‘this flat is cramped, not terribly hygienic, and has a bathroom the size of a small wardrobe. If we split rent, we could get something nicer and with more- er- privacy, I suppose.’

Anne sighed. ‘Yes, I know all that. We’ll get something more practical soon, but we have to stay here for a little while. It would be suspicious if we moved out in such a great hurry.’

‘Suspicious?’ he repeated, bewildered. ‘More suspicious that getting married within a day of getting to know each other? And suspicious to whom, exactly?’

‘To- to people in general,’ she replied uncertainly, and then, looking into his eyes with some new intensity, asked. ‘Listen, do you trust me? You don’t think I’m trying to dupe you, do you?’

He smiled a small crooked smile. ‘I must admit I don’t see how you could do that. I’m not paying you money do go through with this.’

‘Then I promise that I’ll tell you more once- once this is over,’ she said, vaguely waving her hand in the direction of the door. ‘I just want to get the- the formalities over with. Then I’ll have a clear head, and we’ll talk.’

Gilbert regarded her silently for a moment. She returned his gaze with an expression at once imploring and uncompromising.

‘All right,’ he said with a sigh.

Her eyes lit up.

‘Let’s go then. Go get your coat. I’ll wait here. And- Gilbert?’

This was the first time she addressed him by his name in this familiar way, and it sent an odd thrill through his heart.

‘Yeah?’

‘Thank you.’

 

***

 

Half an hour later Gilbert was standing face to face with Anne, who, having shed her coat, turned out to be wearing a dove-gray dress of an extremely simple cut. Her extraordinary hair was pulled back into a smooth updo and decorated with a white rose extracted from the bouquet Phil had insisted on providing.

Altogether, she was such a picture of quiet modesty that Gilbert had a hard time remembering she was here because her past had been stormy enough to force her to literally buy herself a husband.

He had just reached this dispiriting point in his cogitations when he heard the officiating woman clerk say his name, and he realised that he was supposed to say his vows.

Anne raised her eyes to his, and suddenly his throat went completely dry.

It was all so surreal.

Here he was, getting married to a girl whom he met not twenty-four hours ago, and who apparently had the power to transfix him with a single glance of her unfathomable eyes.

He heard her repeat the vows, and then the clerk proclaimed them husband and wife.

Anne pushed herself up on tiptoe and he felt her lips touch his cheek right beside the corner of his mouth.

‘Read this through and sign your names at the bottom,’ said the clerk.

He noticed that Anne had taken his name. It had not even crossed his mind to ask her whether she planned on doing that.

Now, seeing it in black and white, he felt his stomach do a somersault. Whether it was from surprise or excitement he could not determine.

 

***

Philippa appointed herself the organiser of the wedding reception, and invited the other three participants to a very refined restaurant. Anne sat down next to Moody, and, to Gilbert’s unspoken amazement, succeeded in engaging him in a lively conversation, punctuated by bursts of laughter.

Gilbert himself, sitting across the table next to Phil, refrained from asking the latter the thousand questions which were swarming in his brain and listened with a polite smile to her recital of her recent conquests.

 ‘She really is something else, isn’t she?’ Phil suddenly surprised him by saying in an undertone. He started, realising that he’d been staring. Again.

‘You know,’ she went on without waiting for an answer, ‘I suppose it should drive me insane with jealously, this charm of hers. And it comes to her so naturally, too. She doesn’t try for it - I doubt she’d even know how to. And I try until I drop, and still never succeed where I’d like to the most.’

‘Phil, I can hear you,’ said Anne laughingly from the other side of the table, turning a glowing face upon them. ‘And I seem to remember your telling me I look like a nun this very morning when we were getting dressed. So don’t go fishing for compliments at my expense.’

‘You look like a dryad who’s been forced to don nunnish clothes, and somehow makes them look better than my newest Givenchy,’ countered Phil with a good-natured scoff. ‘Your new husband can’t take his eyes off of you.’

Anne rolled her eyes at this and turned quickly back towards Moody.

‘What?’ Phil asked, shrugging at Gilbert’s frown. ‘I see what I see. I know what I know. Moody,’ she finished imperatively, getting up from the table, ‘I think it’s time you and I removed ourselves from the scene and gave the newlyweds their well-earned privacy.’

‘Don’t be ridiculous, Phil,’ said Anne irritably, just catching Gilbert’s eye and quickly looking away. ‘If you keep saying such things, you’ll scare Gilbert away and all the embarrassment I’ve been through yesterday at the mall will have been for nothing.’

‘Somehow, I feel strangely certain there’s not the least danger of that,’ retorted Phil, undauntedly complacent.

Before either Anne or Gilbert had time to respond, she was out of the restaurant, dragging a deflated Moody along with her. The remaining pair looked after them in silence.

‘Your friend is an extremely nice person,’ Anne said eventually, turning towards Gilbert with a slight smile.

‘To be honest, I’ve never seen him so sociable before. You must have put a spell on him,’ he replied, internally cursing himself for the inanity of his words.

To his surprise, Anne’s smile widened and her eyes lit up. ‘I wish I knew how to use magic. I’d go around making people happier, making them forget their worries for a moment. Wouldn’t that be lovely?’

She spoke in a voice unexpectedly soft and dreamy; it was as though another girl had peeped out from behind the high-strung, reserved facade.

‘Yes,’ Gilbert, really unable not to stare at her this time, replied mechanically, and something in his tone must have betrayed the admiration he felt, for Anne was back on her guard in the blink of an eye.

She looked away towards the window, and said indifferently, ‘I suppose we should be going as well. It’s getting late, and the last few days have been rather tiring.’

Gilbert jumped up, fumbling in search of his wallet.

‘Don’t bother,’ said Anne, casting him a sideways look. ‘We have all been Phil’s guests.’

‘Really?’ he chuckled awkwardly. ‘I suppose that’s as well. My finances could hardly withstand the strain of some of the prices I’ve seen in this menu.’

It was only when they were out in the street that Anne replied.

‘You forget you’re a rich man now,’ she remarked soberly without looking at him. ‘You can afford to take girls to as many fancy restaurants as you please.’

Gilbert blinked. ‘Yes- well, I suppose--‘

‘Of course,’ went on Anne in a dull voice, ‘it might have worried you that I have not yet presented you with a cheque. Don’t worry. I forgot to mention it to you this morning, and for reasons that I cannot fathom you neglected to remind me, but we’re going over to the nearest bank right now, and I’ll make a transfer straight away.’

‘Why do you talk as though you were a robot all of a sudden?’ Gilbert asked sharply, irrationally irritated by the turn the conversation was taking.

Anne gave him a detached look over her shoulder. ‘Excuse me. I’m not a native speaker of English. I’m sorry my imperfect syntax offends your highly sophisticated ears.’

What? Anne- this isn’t--‘ he stopped, trying to collect himself and thinking how ridiculous all this was. ‘Anne, you know very well this is not what I meant!’

She continued to walk, and, frowning with annoyance, he caught up with her.

‘You’re not exactly an easy person to deal with, are you? One moment we’re talking like two normal people, and the next you fly out at me for no reason at all!’

I fly out at you?’ Anne repeated jeeringly. ‘It’s you who’s doing all the flying. I’m just trying to deal with this situation in a professional way.’ With a sudden movement, she whirled round to face him, making him stop in the middle of the pavement. ‘It isn’t for my pleasant conversation that you’ve married me, so perhaps let’s go and settle everything so that you might be sure I’m not a swindler after all!’

‘How many times do I have to tell you I never thought that?’ he asked in exasperation, flinching at the way her eyes seemed once again to have turned to steel.

‘Not even when you rejected my offer, and then only agreed to go through with it because you didn’t want that Gardner boy to get the money instead of you?’ she countered icily.

‘I didn’t want him to get the chance to put his dirty hands on you!’ he exclaimed, fighting the urge to shake her up bodily so that she would see reason. ‘Jesus, Anne! What’s your problem?’

I have none!’

‘Do you suggest I do?’

‘Yes!’ she cried, her cool manner finally breaking down. ‘Yes! We have made an agreement. I want to us meet its obligations without delay. You met yours when you signed your name on that piece of paper two hours ago. Now I want to meet mine, and in order to do that I need you to go inside that bank with me right now and let me pay you for your services. Can you please do me the favour of complying with my wishes, Mr Perfect Gentleman?’ she finished in the tone of mock supplication.

They stared at each other of a moment, both challenging the other to break down first.

‘Fine,’ said Gilbert eventually, looking away with a sigh. ‘Let’s go.’

Without another word, Anne resumed her course in the direction of the bank. Gilbert followed, cursing himself internally for being the dumbest idiot alive.

 

***

 

Anne’s spirits rose observably the moment the transaction was completed. She actually smiled at Gilbert as they set out towards his flat.

He himself, on the other hand, felt a sudden conviction that every time he used that money - Anne’s money - he would grow to despise himself a little more.

‘Let’s hurry home,’ said Anne cheerily, slipping her hand through his arm with an air of familiarity that made Gilbert look down at her in surprise. ‘I’m terribly cold, and I’m simply dying to change into something comfortable and crawl into bed.’

‘Well,’ he replied slowly, trying to ignore the way her sudden proximity seemed to make his heart beat completely out of pace, ‘I’m sorry to break this to you, but there isn’t actually a real bed to crawl into. There’s only the sofa, or, alternately, the floor. Pick whichever you prefer.’

His voice must have betrayed his troubled state of mind, for Anne cast a quick look up into his face and withdrew her hand from the crook of his elbow.

‘I see,’ she said restrainedly. ‘I- I suppose it doesn’t really matter. I sleep like a baby, you know. I’ll take the floor- I don’t mind in the least.’

‘I told you there was no room for privacy in that flat,’ said Gilbert with a shrug, looking away from her wary eyes.

He was possessed by a gloomy desire to make the girl feel to the utmost the folly of what they had done the way he saw it himself now that the sordid financial side of the transaction was placed so crudely before his eyes.

Neither of them spoke for the rest of the way, but as soon as they had entered the flat and divested themselves of their coats, Anne addressed him in a quiet, but nonetheless firm tone of voice.

‘Listen, it’s not going to help us if we keep on like this,’ she said, standing before him and crossing her arms on her chest. ‘I think we should at least try to get along. After all, we’re stuck together for at least a year. We need to try to be friends. Do you think you could try to be my friend?’

There was something utterly disarming in the way she asked the question, looking him straight in the eye. The corners of Gilbert’s mouth lifted in spite of himself.

‘You’re laughing,’ she observed dryly. ‘But I’m dead serious. I think we could be good friends if we tried.’

‘I don’t have to try to like you,’ he replied, rolling his eyes. ‘It’s not that at all. It’s just that- well-‘

‘Well?’

Sighing, he frowned a little. ‘It’s just that- Well, in the morning I thought our meeting of yesterday might have been just something I’d imagined. Then you came here, looking amazing--‘ he stopped awkwardly, seeing Anne make an impatient face. ‘And then we were getting married. And then--‘

‘And then I made you accept the money,’ she supplied dryly. ‘That’s what’s it all about, isn’t it? Don’t you see that it would be impossible for me to stay here if you hadn’t accepted it after all? I certainly don’t mean to profit by the pity you take on me, so that you can gloat over what a chivalrous person you are, and--’

He saw that she was getting genuinely upset, and put in quickly, ‘Anne, it’s not that at all. It’s just that- well, I suppose it comes down to the fact that I don’t really like the idea of being-- I don’t know, kept by you.’

‘Kept?’ she repeated, an angry edge to her voice. ‘What is that even supposed to mean? Nobody’s being kept by anybody. We’re married, and have a joint account. Look at it this way if it helps you sleep at night.’

‘But--‘

‘No!’ she stomped her foot impulsively, and he couldn’t help smiling a little again, which elicited a frustrated spark from her eyes. ‘That’s the end of this discussion. We are both lucky to have found a person who’s got something they can give us in return for something else, something we need. Many very happy, permanent marriages are based on less propitious foundations, so I suppose we can make it work for a limited amount of time if we both try. And now,’ she finished, going over to where her suitcase stood propped against a chair, ‘excuse me, but I’m dead beat. Don’t worry if you’ve no spare bedclothes. I have a sleeping bag with me, and tomorrow I’m going shopping for a second couch. And now, I’m going to shower.’

With that, she disappeared into the bathroom, leaving Gilbert staring at the door long after it had closed, unable to decide whether he was irritated, amused, scared, or something else entirely, something he didn’t care to examine too closely.

Chapter Text

Next morning, Anne woke up when it was still dark outside.

The evening of the previous day and the night which had succeeded it were one of the most bizarre experiences of her life.

When she got out of the bathroom, dressed in her long-sleeved pyjamas with her wet hair tucked up in a towel, Gilbert was in the kitchenette making sandwiches. Without looking round at her, he asked whether she preferred cucumber or tomato ones.

She’d said, in what she hoped was both a polite and confident voice, that she was not hungry, and that she was going directly to sleep and would appreciate silence.

Gilbert had shot her a quick look over his shoulder then, which she had ignored. She then proceeded to place her sleeping bag in the corner of the room that was farthest from Gilbert’s couch, and lay down with her face turned towards the wall.

The truth was, she was only now coming to realise the dimensions of the mess into which she had got them both.

The previous day, as she sat looking into Gilbert Blythe’s earnest dark-brown eyes in the mall coffee shop, she felt more at peace than she had for a long time. Even later on, during the wedding, the gentle seriousness with which he had gazed at her as they repeated their vows had caused a wild, irrational hope to spring up in her heart, a hope she was careful to push to the back of her mind and pretend it never existed.

And now here she was, married to an insanely handsome, frustratingly high-principled boy whom she had only met the day before, and whose dark, intense eyes somehow had the ability to render her speechless. And even though she had now put as much physical space between them as was possible, the smallness of the apartment made the situation feel impossibly intimate.

It was not until much, much later that she’d finally managed to fall asleep, and then it was only an extremely light, wary sleep. She was terribly afraid she might have one of her ridiculous nightmares and make Gilbert think she was even more crazy than he must already think her.

The only comforting thought was that she had managed to make him accept the money, and had consequently made it plain that this situation was of a purely business-like quality. No feelings were to be involved - not pity, not chivalrousness, and certainly none of that unspecified emotion which she thought she had seen in Gilbert’s eyes once or twice during the day and which had made her heart behave so irrationally.

They were business partners. That was all. She would help him graduate, and he would prevent her from being sent back to Europe. Also, in perhaps a month’s time, they would rent a much bigger flat, so that they might see as little of each other as was possible.

And tomorrow she was going to buy herself a couch. This floor was terribly hard.

 

***

 

It was thus that, very sleepy and rather sore, Anne left the flat at what was a very early hour next morning in search of first coffee and then a furniture store.

When she came back to Gilbert’s - and her own - flat some hours later it was empty. The dishes were washed and his couch was made. Persuading herself that she deserved this after last night’s tortures, Anne threw herself down on it, stretching out her legs with a sigh of relief.

 

***

 

Through the darkness in which her mind was enveloped, Anne sensed the presence of another body close by, and felt that something soft was being wrapped around her.

Instinctively, still only half-awake, she pulled herself up into a sitting position and stroke out blindly to push the intruder away.

Hey! Anne, calm down, it’s just me!’

Gasping for air, she tried to focus her blurry vision on what was in front of her: a cramped room and a tall, lean, dark-haired man holding his hands up to signalise his harmless intentions.

She shut her eyes tight and subsided against the back of the couch with a sigh, feeling that if the ground should choose to open up right now and swallow her whole, she would raise no objections.

‘I’m sorry,’ she mumbled, putting her palms up to her face to screen the rusty blush that was beginning to spread over it. ‘I’m sorry. I forgot where I was.’ She opened her eyes and peeped out from between her fingers at where Gilbert stood gazing at her with an unreadable expression. ‘I haven’t knocked out your eye or anything like that, have I?’

She had hoped to make him laugh the situation off, but he didn’t even smile.

‘Who did you think I was?’ he asked, frowning a little.

This was definitely not something she was going to discuss with him right now. Or ever.

‘Nobody,’ she replied with some annoyance, sitting up straight and lifting her hands to redo her dishevelled ponytail. ‘I’m telling you I simply forgot where I was. I thought you might be--‘

‘Who?’ Gilbert prompted immediately.

Anne gave him a black look. ‘Can you let it go, for God’s sake? What were you even doing, anyway?’

He looked a little offended at the tone of her voice. ‘Placing a blanket over you, silly girl. You looked cold, all huddled up on that couch. What did you think I was doing?’ he queried with a sneer.

Anne immediately felt apologetic for the tone she had taken, especially since it was impossible for her to believe that a person as transparently honest as Gilbert could do any of the things it had seemed to insinuate.

‘Nothing,’ she replied quickly, trying her best to smile at him. ‘I’m sorry for the way I’ve spoken just now. I-- I didn’t mean to imply anything-- well, anything at all,’ she finished lamely.

For some reason, Gilbert seemed impervious to all her faltering attempts at bringing about a lighter mood. He continued to gaze at her in an unnervingly openly searching way.

‘You went out terribly early,’ he remarked coolly.

‘Yes.’ Anne got up and looked around somewhat distractedly for something she might occupy herself with so as to put an end to this conversation. ‘I told you yesterday I was going to buy a second couch. Why, did you think I had run away?’ she tittered nervously, prompted by a mad impulse. ‘I suppose it must have been a terrible disappointment to come back and see me occupying your couch.’

Another failure.

‘It was a relief.’ Gilbert’s face was tense. ‘I was worried when I woke up and you were already gone, even though it was still fairly dark outside.’

At the curt tone in which this was spoken, Anne’s mood swung back from jittery to annoyed.

‘Worried?’ she repeated, pursing up her lips. ‘There’s no need for you to be worried about me. I can fend for myself, thank you very much.’

Indeed.’

Anne snapped.

‘What’s bitten you?’ she demanded sharply, coming up close to him and involuntarily clenching her fists. ‘What do you want? If you expect me to ask your permission whenever I go out then I’m sorry, but it’s not happening. You are not my keeper, you know.’

‘Anne-‘ He broke off, running his hands over his face in a frustrated gesture. ‘I thought you said we should try to be friends,’ he finished somewhat unexpectedly. ‘Did you really mean it?’

She stared. ‘Well- Of course I-‘ she faltered beneath his intense gaze.

One corner of his mouth quirked up in a sarcastic half-smile. ‘So I thought.’

He turned around and made towards the kitchenette, but Anne quickly grabbed him by the hand.

‘Wait,’ she said, feeling extremely foolish. ‘Gilbert, I did mean it. It’s just that- well-‘

He faced her again, and, to her surprise, she felt his fingers tighten around hers.

‘Well?’ he prompted, and she was relieved to hear that his voice no longer sounded so stiff.

‘I did mean it,’ she repeated, looking down at their intertwined fingers. ‘It’s just that- I didn’t have many friends in the course of my life, you know. So I suppose I’m not very good at being one.’

She felt him give her hand a gentle squeeze, and ventured to look up into his face.

There it was again, that gentle earnestness which flooded her insides with irrational warmth.

‘I’m sorry for the way I’ve behaved just now,’ he said quietly. ‘It’s just that I was really worried about you all through the day.’

‘Did you think I was kidnapped?’ she asked stupidly with a small giggle, the prolonged contact with his skin making her feel kind of giddy.

Gilbert chuckled as well, to her infinite regret letting go of her hand.

‘Something of the kind,’ he admitted, stuffing his hands into his pockets. ‘You know, you do rather give me the impression of someone followed around by shady characters waiting for their chance to pounce.’

Anne gave a small shiver at this, but covered it up with another awkward laugh. ‘That’s way too melodramatical, you know.’

‘Perhaps,’ he agreed with a shrug. ‘But I’m going to keep thinking it until you decide to tell me what it really is that you’re running away from.’

Her stomach did a flip. She sent him an imploring look. ‘Not today.’ It was more a question than an outright refusal.

‘Then when?’ Gilbert’s tone was gentle, but there was a firmness of purpose in it which made Anne realise suddenly just what strength of character the boy standing before her really possessed.

‘Soon,’ she replied shortly. ‘I promise.’

They looked at each other silently for a moment. Then, Gilbert sighed and moved away towards the kitchenette.

‘When is your couch supposed to be here?’ he asked in a casual tone which, for some reason, made Anne feel even worse than the demanding, harsh tones in which he had addressed her before.

She really, really wished he hadn’t turned out to be so - well, so very much like the person she had always imagined she’d like to get married to - caring, strong, honest.

The fact that he did made it all so much more complicated. So much less like the purely business transaction she’d pictured it would be.

Chapter Text

After that brief, futile moment of confrontation things went more or less smoothly for a week.

Anne’s couch arrived duly and was placed by her in the corner occupied before by her sleeping bag. She was still asleep the next day when Gilbert went out, but when he came back the flat was empty. She came back at four in the afternoon, in a gloomy, uncommunicative mood. The same thing happened the following day, and this time Gilbert ventured to ask where she had been.

‘At work,’ she replied shortly.

‘You work? he asked with patent surprise.

Anne pursued her lips. ‘Why exactly is that surprising to you?’ she asked icily.

‘Well-‘ he began slowly. ‘May I ask what you work as?’

She let out a sardonic snort. ‘Not as an exclusive prostitute, although that is probably the obvious conclusion.’

Anne-‘

‘Fine, fine,’ she interrupted grumblingly. ‘I teach languages. Does that meet with your approval?’

Gilbert raised his eyebrows. ‘Languages? As in, multiple?’

‘Don’t pretend to be impressed,’ she rejoined curtly. ‘You’re a top student of a medical faculty. The fact that I can introduce myself in more than one language hardly measures up against that.’

‘It’s really frustrating when you keep pretending I always think the worst of you, you know,’ he said impatiently.

This elicited no response, and there was silence for some moments while Anne continued to read her magazine with ostentatious absorption and Gilbert continued to stare into his empty coffee cup thinking about all the things he would like to say to her - how he thought she was the most beautiful girl he’d ever met, and how even so her beauty was just one of the many things which made her exceptional, and that he knew she was smart and good and--

‘So, what languages exactly do you speak?’ he asked abruptly, prompted by the sudden fear that if the silence lasted any longer he would tell her all those irrational things and she would think him a total creep.

Anne looked up, her face impassive.

‘English would be one,’ she replied with mock seriousness.

Very funny-‘

‘Italian,’ she went on, ignoring his annoyed tones. ‘Spanish, German, and a tiny bit of French.’

He stared, and she returned his gaze levelly.

‘And which one is your native?’ he asked eventually.

‘None really,’ she replied with a shrug, but he thought he could hear a certain tension creep into her voice. ‘What does it matter, anyway? Besides,’ she added with a sudden quick look that somehow seemed to go straight to his heart, ‘if you wanted to know my nationality, all you had to do was to use your eyes when the clerk told you to read through that marriage certificate. It was all in there, you know.’

Gilbert chose to ignore this sally. ‘Can’t you just tell me?’ he queried, annoyed by the way he couldn’t seem to think straight when he was with her and she looked at him in that way of hers.

Anne rolled her eyes. ‘Fine. I’m Swiss. Are you satisfied now? Can we end this interrogation?’

‘I always thought Switzerland was a pretty good place to live in,’ Gilbert observed, heedless of her request.

However, he regretted his thoughtless words the very next second. A slight spasm seemed to pass over Anne’s lively face, and she got up from the table with a jolt.

‘It is,’ she said coolly, avoiding his eyes as she moved away towards the rack upon which their coats were hung. ‘Very much so.’

‘No, Anne, wait-‘ Gilbert got up and, cursing his own stupidity, moved over to where she stood with her back towards him. ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you. Don’t leave. I’m really sorry.’

She turned round slowly. Suddenly, their faces were extremely close. Gilbert’s eyes swept over her pale cheeks, tracing the constellations of freckles covering them. Then, almost involuntarily, his gaze dropped to her lips.

Anne caught her bottom lip between her teeth. It seemed to Gilbert he could hear blood pumping in his ears. Unable to contain himself, he lifted his hand until the tips of his fingers touched the smooth, cool skin of her cheek.

Then, with a startling suddenness, came a knock at the door.

Their eyes met for a split second, and then, with a swift movement, Anne squeezed past him and quickly locked herself in the bathroom.

Trying to collect his scattered thoughts, Gilbert moved slowly to open the door.

It was, of all things, the postman. He handed Gilbert an envelope, mad him sign a receipt, and disappeared.

When Gilbert turned back towards the room Anne was already back there, sitting in at her place by the table with all the appearance of perfect composure.

‘What’s that?’ she asked, looking up and pointing to the letter he was holding.

He blinked confusedly, and then focused his gaze on the address. It began with Mrs. Anne Blythe.

‘It’s for you,’ he answered, coming over to the table and tossing her the envelope.

She picked it up and peered at the handwritten address. Her face expressed nothing. She laid the letter down without opening it, and then, looking back up at him, said calmly,

‘Gilbert, we have to go tell your family about us- I mean, about what we pretend we are.’

He stared. ‘My family?’ he repeated. Mentally, he was still stuck in that moment minutes ago when they had stood so close together with his fingers skimming her skin.

Anne, apparently, had no such obstacles in the way of clear reasoning. ‘Yes. You have some family, don’t you?’

‘Well - I have a brother. An adopted brother, that is. I mean, he’s adopted me-‘

‘All right.’ Anne waved his stutterings aside. ‘Anybody else?’

‘His wife.’

‘And that’s it?’

‘That’s it.’

She gave him a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes. ‘I was afraid I’d have to face a battalion of elderly aunts who’d upbraid me for having the temerity to set my cap on their favourite grand-nephew and distracting him from pursuing his brilliant career.’

Gilbert laughed shortly, mentally wincing at the strained sound of it. ‘No such aunts exist. Well, there’s Mrs Lynde and her cronies of course, but they’re just regular small-town gossips. And,’ he added with a change of tone which made Anne look up at him curiously, ‘I’m sure Mary and Bash are going to genuinely like you.’

Her eyebrows shot up. ‘I’ll certainly try my best not to give them any reason not to. I wouldn’t want them to worry about your having landed yourself with a hysterical, unhinged redhead of a wife.’

‘Anne, I don’t--‘

‘I know, I know,’ she interrupted quickly, holding up her hand. ‘Listen, there’s one more important thing we have to settle before we go-- Anyway, when can we go?’

He shook his shoulders. ‘This weekend, if it suits you.’

‘Suits me beautifully. Listen,’ she looked him in the eye with unnerving directness, ‘we have to have some story prepared as to how we met. I suggest we just say it was at a party given by a common friend - say Phil.’

‘All right,’ he replied indifferently, feeling a new wave of anger at himself at this prospect of a new occasion for lying. ‘And what do we say when they ask why we’ve decided to marry?’

‘That I was wild to move in with you, but my conscience wouldn’t let me until we were properly married,’ Anne said promptly.

He shot her a sceptical look.

‘What?’ she huffed, crossing her arms. ‘How do you know this isn’t the way I would have acted if it was true?’

‘If what was true?’ he asked confusedly.

‘If I actually did fall in love with you at first sight.’

There was a moment of silence as they looked at each other unblinkingly across the table.

Gilbert opened his mouth to say something - he hardly knew what - but Anne was faster.

‘All right then,’ she said with forced crispness, getting up and collecting their empty cups and plates. ‘That’s settled. You know, the reason I want to do it quickly is that I can genuinely say I’ve met your family when people from the immigration centre come along poking and prying.’

‘Sure,’ he replied absent-mindedly, looking on as she turned on the tap and began to wash up.

Chapter Text

‘Blythe! What a sur--‘

The man stopped and stood gaping at Anne with saucer-like eyes. She did her best to maintain the easy smile she had plastered upon her face the moment she and Gilbert entered his family home some two minutes before.

‘Anne, meet my brother Sebastian,’ said Gilbert quickly, making a vague gesture in the man’s direction. ‘Bash, this is Anne.’

Sebastian flashed her such a wide, genuinely heartfelt smile she was momentarily dazzled.

‘What an unexpected pleasure,’ he said, shaking her hand. ‘I never thought I’d see the day--‘

‘What’s all this rumpus about?’

A very pretty, elegantly dressed woman joined the gathering in the small hall.

‘Pinch me, darling,’ chuckled Bash, turning towards her with a grin.

‘Mary, this is Anne,’ said Gilbert, and Anne, despite the anxiety gnawing at her stomach, had to bite the inside of her mouth not to giggle at the tortured tones in which he spoke. ‘Anne, this is Mary, my favourite sister-in-law.’

‘Why, I am extremely happy to meet you, dear,’ said Mary warmly, taking Anne’s hand. ‘Excuse our surprise, but if you knew how long we’ve been waiting for this gentleman here to finally--‘

Gilbert cut in before she could finish.

‘I hope you haven’t had any planes for today?’ he asked, addressing himself to Mary.

‘Of course not, dear. Neither for today nor for tomorrow, for naturally you’ll stay the night.’

‘Well-‘

‘Of course they will,’ put in Bash with another chuckle. ‘Come on in, children.’

‘May we take off our coats first, or are you in too big of a hurry to begin tormenting us with your absurd comments?’ asked Gilbert with biting irony.

‘Don’t begin by bickering, boys. Come on, darling, you’ll help me lay the table.’

With that, Mary ushered Bash out of the hall.

Anne instantly turned towards Gilbert. His expression was a mixture between misery and annoyance.

‘I told you,’ he remarked mournfully.

‘Stop sulking,’ she chided, tugging off her coat. ‘Is it really such an ordeal to pretend for two days that you actually like me?’

He gave her an odd look. ‘No.’

‘Then, for God’s sake, do it.’

She was acting with far more assurance than she felt. In reality, she was horrified, especially now that she had met Gilbert’s brother and his wife. They seemed two extremely nice, friendly, truthful people.

And she was forcing him to lie to their very faces.

‘Anne?’ she heard Gilbert whisper, and realised that she had got lost in thought.

She looked up and met his serious face with a renewed smile.

‘Come on,’ she said, reaching for his hand.

 

***

 

Dinner passed off fairly well. Afterwards, they settled down to coffee, and Mary began to again express her joy at their visit.

‘. . . so, you see we’ve almost lost hope Gilbert would ever lift his eyes from his books for long enough to see any girl he might like, much less take the trouble to actually get her to go out with him,’ she finished, flashing the boy in question an affectionate smile. ‘But it must be really something serious between the two of you if he’s actually brought you here!’

‘Yes,’ put in Gilbert, clearing his throat. ‘It is serious.’

Anne gave his fingers a gentle squeeze. He took up the cue, and proceeded constrainedly,

‘You see, it’s actually really serious. We are-‘

‘Engaged? Oh my God, I’m so happy!’ exclaimed Mary, clasping her hands together and beaming upon them.

‘No, no, it’s not that,’ interrupted Gilbert. ‘We’re not engaged. We’re-‘

‘We’re married,’ finished Anne, unable to endure his stutters any longer.

There was a moment of stunned silence.

‘Are you serious?’ asked Mary eventually, her tones genuinely incredulous.

‘Yes,’ said Gilbert, to Anne’s surprise putting his arm around her waist. She couldn’t help the temptation to lean into him a little, the warmth of his body flooding her with ineffable comfort.

‘I’m sorry we didn’t invite you,’ she said, feeling that some explanation was due. ‘It’s really my fault. I was determined to have a really, really private ceremony. There were only four people present besides the officiating clerk, ourselves included.’

‘Are you-- I mean-- Is it because--‘ stuttered Mary.

Anne, guessing at the reason for her discomfiture, said quickly, ‘No, I’m not pregnant.’ She felt Gilbert stiffen a little beside her, and went on with forced composure, ‘It’s just that we wanted to live together and I couldn’t unless we were married.’

‘Well, this is capital,’ said Bash with a grin. ‘I congratulate you, Blythe.’

‘Thanks,’ replied Gilbert stiffly.

‘I’d congratulate you as well, Mrs. Blythe, except I don’t believe there’s any reason to. What has possessed you to bind yourself to this eternally grumbling brother of mine I cannot conceive.’

Anne laughed with forced lightness. ‘Believe me, Mr Lacroix, out of the two of us I am the moody one. And Gilbert is really, really patient with me,’ she added, willing her cheeks not to redden.

Really patient, eh?’ chuckled Bash, winking at the discomfited pair.

‘I’m so happy for you, darlings,’ put in Mary with a kind smile, evidently having regained her poise. ‘I hope you’ll be very happy.’

Definitely, thought Anne bitterly as she turned her head to smile into Gilbert’s eyes. This turned out to be an ill-considered move, for there was some strange intensity in his gaze that seemed to hold her transfixed.

‘Well, you certainly are smitten with each other,’ remarked Bash complacently.

‘Shut up, Bash,’ Gilbert said with raising irritation. He removed his arm from Anne’s waist, and she couldn’t prevent a slight shiver at the loss of his warm touch. He got up, holding out his hand to her. ‘Come on, Anne, I’ll show you where everything is upstairs.’

‘Yes, by all means do,’ Bash, completely undaunted by Gilbert’s offended attitude, called out after them. ‘The bed’s a little narrow, but the closer the better, isn’t it?’

‘I told you to shut up!

He practically dragged her up the stairs and then pushed her into one of the rooms giving off the corridor, slamming the door to behind himself.

Anne stood watching silently as Gilbert threw himself down on the bed, running his hands over his face and through his hair distractedly.

Then he sat up and met her eyes.

What?’

She lifted her eyebrows. ‘You know what, I take back what I said about me being the moody one in this relationship. You’re--‘

‘In what relationship?’ he interrupted bluntly.

Anne felt a sudden coldness grip her heart. She opened her mouth to reply, but could think of nothing to say.

‘I hate lying to them like this,’ Gilbert went on, his face tense. ‘I hate it. I thought I wouldn’t mind, but when I saw how happy it made Mary--‘ he broke off, lying back down with a groan and covering his face with his hands.

Anne felt a tear tickle her cheek as it run down it, and realised she was crying.

‘Gilbert, I’m sorry. I didn’t-- I’m sorry,’ she faltered hopelessly.

She was doing her best to control her voice, but evidently didn’t quite succeed, for Gilbert looked at her again and heaved a deep sigh.

‘Anne, don’t cry,’ he pleaded quietly, getting up and coming over to where she stood. He paused awkwardly a few inches away. ‘Don’t cry,’ he repeated futilely as she turned her face away from him.

‘You shouldn’t have chased after me at the mall,’ she said bitterly. ‘You were right to reject my offer right away, and I was a fool to insist. I’m sorry I’ve trapped you in this situation. I’ll - I’ll pay you extra, so that you can make it up to them - buy Mary something nice--‘

‘Anne, how many times do I have to tell you I don’t want your money?’ he snapped, reaching up to grab her by the shoulders and make her turn towards him. The anger visible in his face made her heart give an unpleasant lurch. ‘And I certainly don’t regret having agreed to help you. I’m extremely thankful it was me you asked. But--‘

‘Why?’ she interrupted sharply, albeit sinffingly.

‘Why what?’

‘Why did you say that? You’re practically seething with anger right now because of the situation I’ve got you into. Why don’t you stop pretending and admit I’m nothing but trouble, and you knew that as soon as you saw me, and you despise me, and--‘

‘Anne, for God’s sake, stop it.’

She fell silent and lifted her moist eyes to his.

Gilbert raised one of his hands and wiped the tears off her cheeks with a gentleness that made her tremble.

‘You know I could never despise you, Anne. You know it.’

As she shook her head at that he took her face between his hands. This made her stop crying - indeed, it made her stop breathing and she was pretty sure it made her heart stop beating as well.

‘Anne, I’m not angry with you,’ he said earnestly, his thumbs stroking her cheeks in a way that made her want to close her eyes and give herself up wholly to the pleasure his touch brought her. ‘I’m angry with myself because - because this is all wrong. It shouldn’t be this way. We should--‘

At this moment, Bash burst into the room, making them fairly jump apart.

‘Jesus Christ, Bash!’ snapped Gilbert with a scowl. ‘Has nobody taught you how to knock?’

Bash grinned. ‘You’ve never made me knock before. But then,’ he added with a meaningful look at Anne, ‘you’ve never brought any wives here before.’

Anne, who was so unnerved she could hardly keep straight, opened her mouth to reply, but Gilbert was faster.

‘Exactly,’ he said incisively. ‘So perhaps now that I have you’ll try to remember not to burst in and scare the wits out of her. She’s not used to living with strangers.’

This last remark was so absurd in view of their arrangements back in town that Anne, shaken though she was by the exchange which Bash had so untimely interrupted, couldn’t help letting out a stifled giggle.

Bash cast her an amused look. ‘I suppose he enjoys fussing over you any chance he gets, doesn’t he?’ he remarked with a chuckle. ‘He’s always been like that, worried about every little thing when it comes to the people he cares about.’

‘All right, Bash, what do you want?’ cut in Gilbert sharply, to Anne’s relief drawing Bash’s attention away from her.

‘A message from Mary. She says the weather’s wonderful and you’re to take your beautiful wife,’ with a wink in Anne’s direction, ‘out for a walk and show her a bit of your native land.’

‘Yes, Gil, let’s go,’ said Anne promptly, happy to seize the opportunity of getting out of Bash and Mary’s sight and hearing. ‘I’d love a walk.’

With that, she followed Bash out of the room, deeply conscious of Gilbert’s presence right behind her.

 

***

 

It was marvellous weather, with a clear, high sky and a snow-powdered countryside lying peacefully all around.

Anne began the walk by prattling away about just anything she could think of, with small acknowledging hums from Gilbert to keep her going, but soon fell quiet, the surrounding hush somehow entering deep into her and making her want to go on and on in unbroken silence in which only the crunch of their steps and the sound of Gilbert’s breathing right beside her could be heard.

Presently, they passed a bend in the road and came in sight of an avenue lying below them, lined on both sides with snow-hung trees.

‘Oh, isn’t this simply wonderful!’ exclaimed Anne, quite losing the self-consciousness caused by Gilbert’s presence at such an aesthetically pleasing view. ‘It’s like a lane straight out of a Christmas fairytale! Isn’t it lovely, Gil?’ she asked, turning her glowing face upon him only to find that he was looking at her rather than the landscape.

‘Yes, it is,’ he said quietly, never taking his eyes off her. ‘Very beautiful.’

Her eyes widened as she gazed into his, and suddenly she had the sense of falling down, down, into endless darkness.

‘I suppose you think me silly,’ she said with a small shuddering laugh, looking away. ‘You’ve looked at this every year of your life, and I’m rhapsodising about it as though it was--‘

‘I’ve never looked at it with you,’ he put in, interrupting her flow of words.

She dared not look at him again. Snow crunched under his boots as he came over to where she stood, and then she felt his warm fingers close around hers.

‘Anne?’ he said quietly, and she forced herself to look up.

‘Don’t let’s talk about unpleasant things,’ she pleaded somewhat childishly. ‘I want this view to remain beautiful in my memory, and if we quarrel again right now I know I shall come to hate it.’

In reply, he gave her a crooked smile and pulled her closer to his side, putting his arm around her. She leaned her head on his shoulder with a soft sigh.

After a moment of blissful silence, she stepped aside a little so that she might look at him.

‘Gil, if you-‘ she began, but stopped at the sight of the grin which appeared suddenly on his face. ‘What is it? What are you grinning about?’

He quirked an eyebrow at her. ‘This is the third time you’ve called me that.’

Anne felt a wave of warmth flood her face. ‘Called you what?’ she asked, trying to sound genuinely oblivious of his meaning.

‘Gil,’ replied Gilbert with unnerving straightforwardness.

Anne attempted a dismissive snort. ‘It’s not my fault you’ve got such a long name one gets one’s tongue all tangled up trying to pronounce it quickly,’ she said with a shrug. ‘I wouldn’t have to shorten it if it was something nice and easy, like Bob or Dan or Josh.’

‘Josh?’ he repeated, stifling a laugh.

‘Oh, shut up!’

She turned on her heel and began walking back towards the house. Gilbert, still chuckling quietly, caught up with her after a few steps.

‘Stop cackling,’ she said angrily. ‘I wanted to tell you something important, and I can’t if you keep behaving like a schoolboy.’

At these words, Gilbert instantaneously became serious.

‘What is it?’ he prompted with a slight frown.

‘I- I’ve decided I won’t go back in with you,’ she said, avoiding his eyes and gesturing vaguely in the direction of the house.

What?’ he asked sharply, coming up close and trying to peer into her face. ‘Why on earth not?’

‘Because- because I don’t want you to get upset any more. Just tell them - I don’t know, anything. Tell them that my godmother sprained her ankle and I had to go back to town with the first possible train.’

 She heard him exhale a long, weary breath.

‘Anne, we’re both staying or else we’re both leaving. I don’t really care which, but I’m not doing either without you.’

She looked up, shaking her head, but before she could expostulate he went on, his voice strained.

‘I behaved like a brat today. I’m sorry. But you know it had nothing to do with you - I told you I’m only angry with myself.’

‘Because of me,’ she pointed out stubbornly. ‘None of this would be happening if it wasn’t for me.’

He didn’t deny this, and Anne again felt tears of mortification gathering behind her eyes.

‘Well, Mrs Blythe? Are we staying or are we leaving?’

She met his gaze, and he lifted his eyebrows questioningly.

‘Gil-‘

Anne.’

‘This isn’t a joking matter.’

‘It isn’t a crying matter either,’ he countered, and she frowned and looked away.

Before they could say any more and try to get somewhere with what Anne thought was an absurd way of talking, the front door opened and Bash’s burly person could be seen silhouetted against the light streaming from within.

‘Come in, children! Mary’s making muffins!’ he called out through the darkening air.

 

***

 

When Anne came back from her bath she found Gilbert lying across the bed with his arms folded behind his head. At her entrance, he jumped up to a sitting position.

Suddenly, although she was dressed in absolutely decent pyjamas which revealed even less than her daily attire, Anne felt extremely self-conscious. It was somehow much easier to be alone together after dark in a flat which, however small, was yet bigger and much less personal than this bedroom, which seemed pervaded through and through with Gilbert’s presence.

‘It’s my turn to take the floor, I suppose,’ he said, getting to his feet.

Anne went over to where their suitcases stood in a corner by the window. ‘I’d really rather not deprive you of the pleasure of sleeping in your own bed,’ she said with an attempt at nonchalance. ‘Besides, I told you, I am very well adapted to sleeping on the floor.’

‘Ah, I see,’ Gilbert rejoined sneeringly. ‘Is that why you hardly slept at all the whole of that first night?’

She took her comb out of the suitcase and, untying the loose bun she wore in the bath, began brushing her hair with slow, rhythmic movements, gazing into the darkness outside.

‘I’m not sleeping in this bed,’ she reiterated tonelessly. ‘Really, Gilbert, I’m extremely tired. Can’t you do me the favour of not arguing with me this once?’

When no answer came for some moments, she turned round with a frown of impatience, only to see him look away with a start.

‘Sorry,’ he stuttered, moving abruptly towards the door. ‘I- Of course, sleep on the floor if you prefer it. It’s good for the spine, anyway.’

And before Anne, who could feel she was blushing to the very roots of her hair, had time to react, he went out of the room.

Chapter Text

Throughout the following day, Anne acted bright and carefree around Mary and Bash, talking and laughing and, from time to time, smiling at Gilbert in a way which never failed to make him momentarily lose his breath. He tried to come up to the scratch and behave as blithely as she did, but, if he was to be honest, the whole situation was beginning to mess with his head really bad.

As Anne sat prattling by his side, her slender hand in his and the scent of her magnificent hair in the air all around him, he had a hard time remembering that it was all play-pretend, that she was only here with him like this because she’d hired him for the express purpose of making people believe she was his wife.

He knew he was in serious trouble. And he had no idea what to do.

When they were finally alone in the compartment of the train carrying them back towards his - their - dingy flat, Anne fell almost completely quiet. Gilbert, who was frustratingly conscious of missing the sensation of her fingers intertwined through his own now that they were sitting on opposite seats rather than close together the way they had through the two preceding days, felt little inclination for conversation as well, so they travelled in almost complete silence.

Once, as he looked up to see whether she hadn’t fallen asleep, he caught her smiling to herself in a way which oddly annoyed him, and he knew it was because he had no clue what - or rather who - she was thinking about, save for the bleak surety it could not possibly be himself, because when she caught his eye, her expression instantly went blank.

 

***

 

Next morning when he woke up, Anne was already up making coffee, looking insanely pretty in a light-blue dress and actually humming to herself.

‘Hello,’ she said brightly, catching his bewildered eye. ‘Coffee?’

‘No, thanks,’ Gilbert managed groggily, sitting up. ‘Is something special happening today?’

‘No, of course not,’ rejoined Anne quickly, her back turned towards him. ‘Why such an odd idea?’

‘You seem really. . . cheerful. And you’ve dressed up.’

‘Are you implying that I’m usually glum and scruffy?’ she asked with a forced laugh, turning round to face him. As she did so, her cheeks went scarlet, and he realised he was naked to the waist.

He felt a hot wave hit his face, and hastily fumbled round for the old T-shirt he usually slept in. ‘What I meant was simply that usually you’re not up this early,’ he mumbled, pulling it over his head.

‘I’m working an early shift,’ she replied, gulping down her coffee and heading over to the coat rack without sparing him another look. ‘I’ll see you in the evening.’

With that, she was out of the flat.

 

***

 

During lunch break, Gilbert decided that he might as well skip the afternoon classes.

He had been extremely restless all the morning, unable to focus and irritable to a degree which made his friends, accustomed to his almost invariable politeness, stare at him in a way which only heightened his annoyance.

As he walked home through the gray, damp late January streets all he could think was damn Anne Shirley and her eyes and her hair and her smile. And, most of all, damn her mysterious ways. What on earth was she up to? How could he know it was not something as reckless and dangerous as asking a complete stranger to marry her?  How--

He was only just in time to duck behind the corner of a nearby wall when he caught the glimpse of a familiar gray coat and a windswept head of auburn hair. The girl was standing with her back to him, but Gilbert had not the slightest doubt that it was Anne.

Facing her was a young man with the face of a movie actor. In another moment, they embraced in a way which made Gilbert’s heart contract in a pang of jealousy, and he saw Anne’s lips touch the man’s cheek. They embraced again, lingeringly, and then finally separated and headed in opposite directions.

The coffee shop out of which the pair had emerged was a place Gilbert knew well. He entered it and at once saw that what he had been hoping for was indeed the case: Josie Pye, the most insidious gossip in town, was stationed behind the counter.

Usually Gilbert would never have stooped to doing what he planned to do now, but all he could think of now was the way Anne had seemed unwilling to let go of the unknown man, the memory of her reaching up to touch his face with her lips.

He went up to the counter, a charming smile pasted on his face. As soon as she caught sight of him, Josie assumed her most coquettish manner.

‘Hello, Gilbert,’ she chirped up. ‘I haven’t seen you in ages!’

‘Well, this is not really my usual itinerary,’ he replied with a nonchalant shrug. ‘As a matter of fact, I came in hoping to find you.’

‘Oh, really?’

‘Yeah. You see, Josie,’ he lowered his voice confidentially, bending in a little closer, ‘it’s rather an embarrassing affair, but I’m doing it for an old friend who’s worried about his younger sister. Can I count on your discretion?’

‘Oh, absolutely.’

Willing himself not to show by the flicker of an eyelid how much he cared, Gilbert asked evenly, ‘Did you notice a tall, dark-haired man who’s just left here? There was a girl with long red hair with him.’

Ah,’ said Josie with an unpleasant smirk. ‘I think I know who you mean. A sickly-looking, freckled, jumpy creature.’

Gilbert managed to stifle the indignant words welling up in his throat. ‘That’s probably her. Do you know her?’

‘All I know is her name’s something utterly ridiculous - Cornelia? No, it wasn’t that. . . Cordelia? Yes, I think it was Cordelia. That’s what that man she was with called her.’

Cordelia? What on earth-

‘Yeah, Cordelia’s the one - the friend’s sister, I mean,’ Gilbert amended quickly. ‘Do you know the bloke who’s been here with her?’

‘By reputation,’ said Josie, shrugging. ‘He’s French, and allegedly disgustedly rich. And, if you don’t mind my saying that,’ she added with a malicious glint in her eyes, ‘whoever’s sister she is, it’s obvious that that ginger harpy has got him wrapped around her little finger.’

‘Have you- have you seen them here together before?’ By now Gilbert had trouble getting words out past the lump in his throat, but Josie seemed not to notice.

‘Oh, not really. Only him, once or twice during this past weekend.’

At that moment, to Gilbert’s infinite relief, another customer approached the counter, and he seized the chance to slip out as soon as Josie turned her back on him. He would no doubt have to pay up for picking her brains sometime in the future, but at the moment there was no room in his mind for any thoughts save one.

Anne had lied to him.

Was Anne even her real name? It had been on the marriage certificate, so he supposed it must be - or else she might have obtained a fake ID which said it was. That wouldn’t be beyond her, would it? She evidently had no trouble lying about not knowing anyone in town save Phil, when all the time there was this mysterious French millionaire hovering in the background.

By the time he had reached the flat, Gilbert felt like giving someone a sock in the jaw. Simultaneously, he had not the least idea what he was going to say to Anne.

In that unpropitious frame of mind, he opened the door and was confronted by a sight ill calculated to ease his spirit: Anne was curled up on his couch in an attitude of disarming vulnerability, her festive attire of earlier on in the day exchanged for sweatpants and an oversized T-shirt which he recognised, with a lurch of his heart, as his own.

That lurch was the final straw. Clenching his teeth and steeling his heart against her, he banged the door closed.

With a small unhappy groan, Anne opened her eyes.

‘Hello,’ she said in a sleeply voice, a somewhat uncertain smile appearing on her face at sight of him.

Any reply he might have made stuck in Gilbert’s throat. Stiffly, he went over to the kitchen counter and poured himself a glass of water.

Anne lay watching him with a puzzled face. ‘You’re home early,’ she observed eventually, evidently doing her best to sound casual.

He turned to look at her. This was a bad move, as the sight of her lying dishevelled on what was in effect his bed, wearing his shirt, was not calculated to help him tackle the subject with the cool businesslike manner he had just resolved on adopting.

Anne shifted uneasily under his gaze. ‘What’s wrong, Gil?’ she asked with a slight tremor in her voice.

The words were out of Gilbert’s mouth almost before he was conscious of willing his tongue to form them.

‘You tell me what’s wrong, Anne. Or perhaps it would be more accurate if I called you Cordelia?’

Her face went white. She sat up slowly, her fingers clutching at the arm of the couch.

‘What- Who have you been talking to?’

Gilbert felt his lips form a venomous smile. ‘People who apparently know better than me what your name really is.’

‘Gilbert, you’ve got it all wrong.’ She rose and walked up to where he stood with the movements of a sleepwalker. ‘You’ve got it all wrong,’ she repeated hopelessly, stopping a step away from him. ‘Someone’s been telling you things-‘

‘You, on the other hand, have been telling me lies,’ he interrupted viciously, making her flinch. ‘You forgot, for example, to mention the fact that you are being sponsored by that French friend of yours whom you meet when you pretend to be working--‘

A sharp pain shot through his cheek as Anne’s small palm struck it a fierce slap.

‘How dare you!’ she gasped, raising her hand again. ‘You- You-‘

He grasped her by the wrist before she could strike him again.

‘Let me go!’

The look in her eyes was so wild Gilbert felt a sudden flash of anxiety cut through his anger.

‘Anne-‘ he stuttered, reaching out for her hand again. She flinched away with the motion of a frightened animal.

Don’t touch me,’ she hissed, backing away. ‘You don’t want to get your pristine hands dirty, do you?’

‘Anne, I swear I didn’t mean-‘

‘It’s perfectly clear what you meant!’ She threw on her boots and grabbed her coat. ‘You’ve told me every day since we met what you think about me, but I kept fooling myself. But I’m sick of it now, I’m simply sick!’

She went out, banging the door shut.

He listened to the receding sound of her running quickly down the stairs, physically restraining himself from going after her.

Chapter Text

Hours passed. Evening turned to night, and then night turned to the small hours of next day’s morning.

And still, Anne never came back.

Gilbert alternately sat numbly by the table and walked the floor restlessly. Finally, he threw himself down on the couch, but sleep would not come. He could not possibly fall asleep while he knew that Anne was somewhere out there alone, mad at him - and with good reason too. Neither could he do anything to make sure she was safe - she didn’t answer her phone, and he had no other means of contacting her.

It was just before three in the morning when the door to the flat finally opened and a shadowy silhouette slipped inside, moving with evident caution not to make its presence known.

Gilbert watched her move slowly towards the bathroom door. When she had gone in, he got up and switched on the light. Then he sat down at the table, putting his face in his hands.

Some moments later, the bathroom door creaked open, and he heard Anne give a startled gasp.

‘What’s this nonsense?’ she asked sharply. ‘What are you staying up for?’

‘Anne-‘ he began, looking up. ‘Jesus Christ, what’s happened to you?’

He stood up, his eyes fixed on her face. There was a giant bruise in the early stages of formation under her left eye, and her lower lip was swollen from a rather nasty cut.

She didn’t answer. Slowly, Gilbert went up to her, his mind reeling.

‘Anne, who did this to you?’ he asked in a hoarse whisper.

Her face expressed nothing. ‘Nobody. I tripped going down a stairs.’

Gilbert gave her an incredulous look. ‘You don’t expect me to believe that, do you?’

‘I don’t care what you believe or don’t believe,’ Anne snapped, moving over to the kitchen cupboard. As she reached up to take down a glass, he noticed her frown and quickly press her left hand to her right shoulder.

‘Here,’ Gilbert moved quickly to hand her down the glass. She accepted it without looking at him, poured herself some water, and drank it in great, gulping quaffs.

‘Did you get hurt there too?’ he asked when she had finished, pointing to the shoulder of her right arm, which she was keeping stiffly pressed to her side.

She shot him a black look. ‘I told you I didn’t get hurt. I tripped.’

Gilbert looked away with a sigh. ‘Anne,’ he said pleadingly, turning his gaze back upon her tense face. ‘I swear I regret every word I said to you last afternoon. I never meant any of it. I was simply- I was simply so damn angry, because-‘

‘Gilbert, I told you I don’t care,’ she interrupted harshly. ‘So don’t bother apologising.’

‘But-‘

I don’t care!’ Anne snapped, her face contorted with suppressed tears. ‘I don’t want you to apologise to me only to go and assume the worst the next time you see or hear something you don’t understand! If you want to do me a favour, despise me consistently and then at least we’ll both know what page we’re on! And- ugh!’

This last exclamation was accompanied by her clutching again at her right shoulder, her pain evident.

‘Anne, you have every right to be angry with me,’ Gilbert said quietly, taking her gently by the arm and leading her over to the couch. ‘But you have to let me see what’s happened to you. Maybe it’s nothing serious, but if it is we have to take you to the hospital right away. Will you let me see?’

She nodded reluctantly, looking away from him.

‘I have to ask you to take off that sweater,’ he said, trying to act professional and not to let on how discomfited he was feeling.

Anne unbuttoned the cardigan she was wearing, and he could not help noticing that her hands were somewhat shaky. Wincing a little, she pulled the sleeves off one after another.

She was still wearing Gilbert’s old T-shirt underneath, a fact which had slipped his memory in the turbulences of the night and which now served to make him feel even worse about what had happened between them.

‘Well, go on,’ said Anne impatiently, startling him out of his bleak reverie.

‘Sorry,’ he mumbled, pulling up the right sleeve of her shirt.

The pale skin of Anne’s shoulder was stained dark blue where a large, ugly bruise was beginning to appear. There were a few smaller bruises scattered along the length of her arm.

Gilbert’s stomach sunk a little.

‘Anne, I don’t believe this could have been caused by falling,’ he said quietly.

‘It was a nasty fall.’ Her voice was cold, almost mocking. ‘Well? Is it imperative to call the ambulance? Or will the patient survive?’

He was silent a moment, considering. The large bruise looked nasty and might develop into a hematoma, but he didn’t believe it would be a dangerous one. He moved her shoulder around to check for any dislocation. Fortunately, there seemed to be none.

‘Are you hurt anywhere else?’ he chanced eventually. ‘Anne, tell me the truth. Please.’

He saw a slight tremor pass over her tense face. Taking a deep breath, she startled him by suddenly looking him full in the eyes.

‘My- my stomach doesn’t feel quite right. And I- I got hurt there too when I fell.’

‘Okay,’ he replied slowly, doing his best to sound neutral. ‘I can take a look at it if you like.’

‘I don’t,’ she snapped, making him lift his eyebrows. ‘I mean, I don’t like it. But I suppose it’s better you do it than if I go to the hospital and they accuse you of-‘

‘Of what?’ he prompted, but she looked away with a frown.

‘Nothing.’

She moved to lie down on the couch, and then shot him a suddenly frightened look which made his stomach drop. Was she really afraid of him? Had he spoiled his chance of earning her trust?

‘Don’t worry, I’m a professional - Well, nearly,’ he said with an awkward laugh meant to reassure her. ‘I’ve done this hundreds of times during my internship.’

Instead of replying, Anne slowly pulled the T-shirt up.

Gilbert was conscious that her gaze was fixed on his face, and it was only by an enormous effort of will that he managed to keep himself from showing the shock he felt.

Running from her left ribcage diagonally across her stomach to her right hipbone, was a nasty, deep, dark-red scar. It wasn’t fresh - it looked at least a couple of weeks old - but it was terrifying nonetheless.

He let his eyes wander slowly up to her face. Anne was pale, her gaze alert, as though she was ready to up and run the moment he said the wrong thing.

Swallowing hard to keep himself from uttering the question which hung heavily between them, he said in a quiet, gentle voice,

‘I’ll press and you’ll tell me if it hurts at all, even just a little. All right?’

‘All right,’ came the stiff reply.

He examined her stomach, doing his best to avoid touching the glaring red line. Anne lay very still, and when he chanced a look at her face she returned it with impassivity.

‘No pain?’ he queried. ‘Then it seems there’s nothing to worry about.’

‘No, I didn’t think there would be,’ she replied, moving to pull down the T-shirt. ‘It just felt a little funny. I- I was afraid something might have gone wrong inside it.’

‘You mean you thought your fall has been serious enough to have caused you internal injuries?’ he asked, watching her get to her feet somewhat unsteadily. It seemed to him the sight of that red scar across her soft, pale skin had burned itself into his retinas.

‘Yes,’ she replied, turning upon him eyes that were strangely bright. ‘That’s just what I thought. I’m glad this isn’t the case, though.’

‘Anne-‘ he began pleadingly, getting to his feet and reaching for one of her hands. To his relief, she didn’t snatch it away immediately. ‘Anne, I am so, so terribly sorry for having driven you out last evening. I- I need you to know you’re safe with me. I’m an idiot, but I do care about you. Can you forgive me?’

She gave him a smile at once wistful and full of irony. ‘Really, you are crazy to go to all this trouble about a roughneck like me. But,’ she added, reaching up to skim his cheek lightly with her fingers, her gentle touch making his eyes widen in bewilderment, ‘it is nice to believe someone worries about me a little.’

‘I worry about you a lot,’ he shot back, his eyes fixed on hers. ‘And, Anne, I wish you would-‘

‘I’m terribly tired,’ she interrupted suddenly, moving away from him and towards the bathroom. The change in her tone was like another slap in the face. ‘I need a shower. And then I need a long, long sleep.’

Without sparing him another look, she disappeared behind the door.

His thoughts running wild, Gilbert went over to the kitchen counter and made some tea and a couple of sandwiches. He then put them on the table where Anne couldn’t fail to notice them upon leaving the bathroom, and finally threw himself down on his couch, his face away from the room.

There was no way he was going to let her fob him off on something like this. It was crazy, the whole thing had been crazy from the start - but they were together in it now, and he would get her to share her burdens with him, whatever it took.

He would get her to talk to him. He would make sure nothing bad happened to her again. He would help her escape that past which, evidently, kept haunting her in spite of all she’d done to leave it behind.

And he would find the person who had left that scar on her skin, and make sure they paid for it.

Chapter Text

Anne was extremely thankful to see Gilbert had given up questioning her for the night – that was, for whatever little was left of it. She sipped a little of the tea he’d made for her, but the mere thought of forcing down the sandwiches made her feel nauseous.

She thought she wouldn’t be able to fall asleep, but, mercifully, she was wrong: as soon as she threw her exhausted body down on the couch, impenetrable darkness enveloped her, and she slept in well onto late morning.

To her slight dismay, her stomach continued to feel not quite right. But Gilbert had said nothing seemed to be the matter with it, and he would know, wouldn’t he? She definitely wasn’t going to rush off to any doctor right now without a real reason – it would only mean fresh trouble, and heaven knew she didn’t need that.

She would simply take it easy and hope for the best.

Gilbert said it was all right, she repeated to herself like a mantra.

Yes, but Gilbert hadn’t really known what he was supposed to look for.

As morning wore on into the afternoon, and Anne began to feel a headache coming on, she decided it was no use lolloping on the couch any more. She would occupy herself with something – anything – she would make herself hot chocolate. Yes, she felt a sudden decided hankering for hot chocolate. Did Gilbert have any?

After a cursory glance around the cupboards, she espied a promising-looking tin in the upper regions of one of them. She brought over a chair and climbed onto it. The hot chocolate tin was stuffed into the farthest corner of the cupboard, and she had to lean forwards a little to reach it.

Then, so rapidly she was hardly able to register what was happening, the chair slid away from underneath her feet. She felt her heart skip a beat, heard, distantly, a dull thud, and lost consciousness.

 

***

 

She awoke in a strange room filled with dimmed cold light. In the corner was a woman in a white overall sitting bent over a pile of papers.

A nurse.

She was in hospital.

She must have inadvertently made a sound, for the woman raised her head and shot a sharp look in the direction of the bed where Anne lay.

‘Hello, sweetheart,’ she said with a reassuring smile, coming over and bending down to check whether the drip needle was in place. ‘How are we feeling? Not too bad, are we?’

Anne tried to speak, but her throat was sawdust dry. The nurse noticed this, and instantly helped her take a sip of water.

‘What— what about the baby?’ Anne asked as soon as the nurse had taken the glass away from her lips.

The woman’s kindly face fell infinitesimally, and, for Anne, this was answer enough.

‘I’ll call in the doctor,’ said the nurse gently. ‘She’ll explain everything—‘

‘I’ve lost it, haven’t I?’

A beat of silence, and then a quiet, ‘Yes, honey. I’ll call in the doctor now, all right? Try not to get excited.’

Anne, who was feeling utterly numb, nodded slightly.

A few moments later, a tall, austere-featured middle-aged woman entered the room.

‘Mrs Blythe, isn’t it? Do you feel any particular pain anywhere?’

‘No,’ answered Anne without really considering the question. ‘What happened—I mean, how did I get here?’

‘Your husband called the ambulance. His story is that he came home to find you unconscious on the floor.’

The tone in which the latter sentence was spoken was odd enough to pierce through the thick fog enveloping Anne’s brain.

‘His story?’ she repeated, frowning in an attempt to gather her thoughts. ‘Why did you say it like that?’

The doctor shot her a piercing look. ‘Mrs Blythe, if you need any help. . . If your husband isn’t treating you right, you need to get help. There are signs of physical violence on your body—‘

‘It wasn’t Gilbert!’ said Anne feverishly, trying, unsuccessfully, to push herself up to a sitting position. ‘Where is he?’

‘Shh,’ cooed the doctor soothingly, laying a hand on her arm. ‘Don’t get upset. We won’t talk about this anymore right now. Try to go to sleep. Everything will be all right.’

‘But—is he here?’

‘Honey, right now you need rest. You can talk to your husband tomorrow.’

‘Please, let him come in just for a moment,’ pleaded Anne, feeling her temples begin to pulsate with incipient ache. ‘I need to tell him—Please.’

The doctor huffed, pursed her lips, and looked altogether deeply disapproving; but, after making sure Anne’s physical state was as good as could be expected, she went out of the room with the promise of telling Gilbert he might come in.

Anne clenched her teeth in anticipation. This was the way she was repaying him for being one of the few people who had treated her with genuine kindness!

Lost in bitter meditation, she didn’t hear him come in, and only realised his presence next to her when his warm hand gently took her own ice-cold one.

She opened her eyes and turned towards him. His face was haggard and he seemed to have aged whole years since the previous day.

They looked at each other silently for a moment, and then Anne felt her lip begin to tremble.

‘Gilbert,’ she said, barely managing to get the word out through her tears-choked throat. ‘Listen, I’m—‘

Anne,’ he interrupted, his voice hollow. ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’

She stared back into his worried, questioning eyes.

‘Because—because I didn’t want you to— to think—‘ she could not bring herself to finish, could not think of a rational excuse.

‘It’s my fault,’ he surprised her by saying in a hard, strained tone. ‘I should have made you go to the hospital last night. Anne, you should have told me— When I came home and saw you lying there—‘ He stopped abruptly, as though realising he shouldn’t speak like that to her right now.

Anne, whose head was feeling worse by the minute, shut her eyes and attempted to take a deeper breath.

‘These people here think it’s your fault I— they think I miscarried because you— they think it was you who hit me,’ she said eventually, without opening her eyes. ‘Gilbert,’ she forced herself to look at him. He was frowning, his jaw clenched. ‘I— I promise to make it right somehow. I realise this might seriously affect your future as a doctor, and I know I can’t let that happen. Oh, God, it’s all my fault!’ she broke down suddenly, no longer able to withstand his earnest, piercing gaze. ‘I knew something like that was bound to happen! I knew—‘

‘Anne, stop it,’ Gilbert urged gently, his fingers squeezing hers a little tighter. ‘This doesn’t matter. And anyway it isn’t something you should be worrying about right now. You need to try to rest.’

‘Why?’ she snapped, feeling more unhinged by the second. She shot him a scowling look and saw him flinch a little in reaction to her strident tone. ‘There’s no reason for me to rest now. It is gone. And good for it, too. I would have made a ghastly mother. I’m glad it’s gone.’

She took perverse pleasure in watching Gilbert’s face grow increasingly troubled as she spat the words at him. Very well, let him think she was a crazy, cold-hearted bitch after all. Maybe he’d finally realise how idiotic of him it was to keep treating her as though she was worth caring for.

‘As you see, your sympathy is quite misplaced,’ she went on viciously. His silence and the, of all things, tender, worried expression of his eyes made her want to hit him to wipe it off his face. ‘What do you have to look so fucking gloomy about anyway? It’s not as though it was your kid.’ By now she was fairly choking on the sobs that kept welling up in her throat. ‘You should be relieved it’s gone! Otherwise you would have had a girl pregnant with somebody else’s baby on your hands. Or perhaps you would have liked that? It would have suited you to play the errant knight again, wouldn’t it? Oh my fucking God, stop looking at me like this!’

She hid her face in her hands, choking on her tears and the self-loathing that flooded her.

Then she felt the warm, tentative touch of Gilbert’s hand on her arm.

‘Anne, I know you don’t really—‘

‘You don’t know anything!’ she snapped, shrugging his hand away.

‘Then tell me,’ he countered in a quiet, strained voice.

Anne tried to reply, but the aching in her head was too bad for her to be able to concentrate anymore. Without opening her eyes, she shook her head and rolled over to her side so that her back was turned towards him, hiding her face in the blessedly cool pillow.

She heard the door open, and then the doctor say dryly, ‘I think it’s time for you to go home, Mr Blythe. This girl has been through enough today. We’ll give her something to help her sleep now. She’ll probably be discharged tomorrow at midday, if no complications arise.’

There was a momentary silence, and then she felt Gilbert’s fingers brush her shoulder so lightly she wasn’t sure she didn’t make it up.

‘I’ll come take you home tomorrow, Anne,’ he said in a barely audible whisper. ‘Try to get at least a little sleep.’

She couldn’t bring herself to reply.

Chapter Text

When Gilbert arrived at the hospital at eleven the next morning, his eyesight unfocused with two nights’ sleeplessness, he was startled to see Anne already out of bed and putting on her coat.

She shot him a brief glance.

‘You needn’t have skipped classes again,’ she said in a toneless voice. ‘I would have managed just fine on my own.

He said nothing, afraid his overheated brain might trap him into saying yet another thing he’d regret for the rest of his life. He merely went over to where the bag containing Anne’s few belongings was propped up against the bed and, picking it up, stood waiting for her to finish getting dressed.

Without sparing him another look, she headed towards the door, nodding goodbye to the nurse stationed behind the desk. Gilbert followed, conscious of the overtly curious way in which the elderly woman in white watched them leave.

In silence, they went down in the lift and out of the building. Still in silence, they took one of the numerous taxi cabs stationed near the hospital entrance.

Once inside it, he risked giving Anne a smile, or something as approaching it as he could manage. She turned her face away the moment her eyes met his.

With every second that passed, he was becoming less capable of picturing to himself what was going to happen once they were left alone in that accursed flat.

Because Anne was probably going to get her things and disappear from his life forever.

The thought made him sick with misery but, judging by the way things had gone the previous night at the hospital, he could not imagine she would want to stay anywhere near him longer than was absolutely necessary. After all, it was his fault she’d lost the baby. If it had not been for his absurd jealously, she would never have gone out in the middle of the night.

His heart grew heavier with every step he took up the drab staircase. Anne was walking in front of him, moving rather slowly, and it suddenly struck him that she probably shouldn’t be climbing stairs just now. However, short of proposing to bodily carry her the rest of the way, he could see no solution, so he simply remained silent and felt even worse.

Finally, the dreaded moment came. He closed the door behind them.

He heard Anne emit a quiet sigh as she chucked off her coat and boots. Then, she headed straight towards her couch and not so much threw herself as listlessly slid down onto it, crumpling herself into a bundle of gray sweater and red hair damp from the fog outside.

Gilbert’s stomach gave an unpleasant lurch when he saw the strained look of suppressed pain on her face. His insides churning with fear that she would push him away again, he slowly went over to the couch and crouched down beside her.

To his surprise, she met his eyes squarely.

‘Does it— do you feel any particular pain?’ he stuttered, keeping himself from reaching out for her hand and wincing internally at how insipid his question was.

One corner of her mouth twitched nervously. ‘No,’ she replied, continuing to stare at him in an oddly blank way. ‘Don’t worry. They wouldn’t have let me out if they didn’t think I was well enough. You shouldn’t have skipped school again. I would have managed.’

‘I know.’

Anne’s eyebrows shot up.

‘I know you would have managed,’ Gilbert repeated, shrugging his shoulders. ‘That’s not why I came to get you. I came because— because I was afraid you’d run away before I had the chance to tell you that I— I—‘ he broke off, looking away from Anne’s increasingly bewildered face. What an idiot he was to go talking to her in this ridiculous manner!

Anne frowned. ‘I don’t really have anywhere else to go to right now even if I wanted to, you know,’ she said dryly.

‘You could have gone to Phil’s,’ Gilbert pointed out, aware that what he really wanted to say was that she might have gone to whatever suburban villa her millionaire friend of French origin lived in, and he would never see her again.

She snorted dismissively. ‘I just want to have a little peace and quiet by myself. And I could not get that at Phil’s. Seriously, Gilbert,’ her tone became impatient, ‘you can leave. I promise I won’t run away. That’s an absurd idea, anyway. The only thing I want to do is go to sleep. I feel like I haven’t slept in days.’

‘So do I,’ he said with an awkward laugh, and then froze as the mask of blankness slipped from her face for a second and he seemed to glimpse the real feelings behind it.

He was just going to ask her again whether she was alright, but she regained control of her features so quickly he wasn’t sure he hadn’t made up the harrowing torture he saw there a second before. Unable to think of an excuse to stay when she’d expressly told him she wanted to be left alone, he put on his coat and, casting one last look at where Anne now lay with her back towards him, left the flat.

 

***

 

He had barely made it down the stairs when he realised he had forgot his phone.

He could not possibly be out all day without it, as it somehow seemed to make it much more probable that something bad would happen to Anne and she would end up trying to contact him in vain.

So, feeling rather like a fussy old maid, he came back to the flat, walking on tiptoe and, in case Anne had already fallen asleep, opening the door very quietly.

He was confronted by the sight of Anne sitting doubled-up on the couch, crying so violently she was barely able to breathe.

‘What’s wrong?’ he asked, rushing up to her. ‘Anne, what’s wrong? Does it hurt so much?’

She turned away from him. ‘You were supposed to be out!’ she managed between gasping sobs.

Gilbert, sick with worry, did the only thing which seemed to him likely to do any good. He sat down right next to her and put his arms around her crouching from, holding her shivering body to himself.

Anne went on crying just the same for a few moments; then, to his relief, Gilbert felt her muscles relax. Gradually, her sobs became less violent, and she allowed herself to lean a little into him, turning her head so that it was leaning on his shoulder.

After a few more moments of silence, she said in a raw, exhausted voice,

‘I would have tried to be a good mother, you know. I probably wouldn’t have succeeded, but I would have tried.’

‘I know,’ was all Gilbert could reply.

‘I was frightened to death when I first found out about the pregnancy – and then I realised having a baby would mean I’d never be alone again.’ She uttered a laugh which sounded so hollow Gilbert’s blood seem to freeze in his veins. ‘I should have known that that was too good to come true for someone like me.’

Gilbert was at a loss for an adequate thing to say. It seemed ridiculous to tell her she could get pregnant again in the future. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said eventually, trying to let her know how much he meant it by holding her a little closer.

She raised her head from his shoulder and faced him. She looked truly terrible, the pallor of her face and the way her enormous eyes seemed to have sunken deep into their sockets making the bruise still visible under one of them stand out in a rather ghastly way.

And as Gilbert looked at that tortured face, the realisation of just how much he cared for her hit him with such force he had to clench his jaw to prevent himself from telling her about it.

Anne noticed the sudden tension of his expression, and interpreted it in her own way.

‘I suppose I look like a runaway madwoman,’ she remarked with a half-hearted attempt at flippancy. ‘I’m sorry for being such a horrid wife. All I had to recommend me were my decent looks, and now even they are gone.’

‘You’re the best wife I’ve ever had,’ Gilbert blurted out, and was immensely relieved to see Anne give a pale smile.

‘With an ordeal like me behind you, it won’t be difficult to find a more suitable candidate for the post in the future,’ she said with a small, anxious laugh.

Before he could stop himself, Gilbert raised his hand to brush away the stray strands of hair sticking to her tear-wet face. ‘Anyone else would seem lethally dull in comparison to you, that’s for certain,’ he said in a voice he attempted to make sound mockingly solemn to cover the dismay he felt at the thought of her taking it for granted he wanted to get rid of her as soon as possible.

Anne, whose eyes had regained a small fraction of their usual spark, snorted angrily, at the same time moving away from him and out of his arms. Wiping her face on her sleeve and looking away from him, she said rather unexpectedly,

‘Jerry is my younger brother.’

Gilbert stared. ‘Wh—what?’

‘Jerry,’ she repeated with an impatient shrug, facing him again. Her face was now splotchy red instead of deadly white, but Gilbert was grateful to see she no longer had the zombie-like blank look about her which she’d had on leaving the hospital. ‘The boy you saw me with two days ago. He’s my younger brother.’

‘Oh,’ he raised his eyebrows in surprise. ‘I thought – I might have got you wrong, but I thought you said you were an only child?’

‘I am – biologically. Jerry’s been adopted by the same people who adopted me, back in Switzerland. He’s had it even worse in life than m—I mean, he’s had it really bad.’

It was difficult to ignore Anne’s unintended reference to the hardships she’d been through in the past, but Gilbert did it; she’d tell him someday – perhaps.

‘He didn’t look too much down and out when I saw him,’ he said instead, with a smirk intended to let her know he didn’t mean it in an accusatory way.

Anne rolled her eyes. ‘That’s because he isn’t. He’s just as well off as I am. We’ve been left the same amount of money, by the same person.’

‘Your adoptive parent?’

She shook her head with a sour smile. ‘No, the Cuthberts were as badly off as charitable, kind-hearted people usually are. It was someone else – a great-aunt of my best friend’s. She was single, childless, and what people call disgustedly wealthy. See,’ she added, giving him a pointed look, ‘I told you I came by that money legally.’

He frowned a little. ‘I never questioned that.’

Anne looked away. ‘No, not that.’ Her voice was bitter.

Gilbert instantly wished he could bite his stupid, blundering tongue off. ‘Anne,’ he said, gingerly moving a little closer and touching her arm in an attempt to make her look at him. She turned towards him with a reluctant sigh. ‘I—I know I’ve said this before and it won’t change anything, but I’m so genuinely sorry for all the stupid things I said to you. I swear to you I never truly thought any of them. I just—I just did it because I was jealous, and—‘

Jealous?’ she repeated, frowning confusedly.

‘Well—yes,’ he said, gulping in an attempt to get rid of the lump of in his throat.

‘But jealous of what?’ To his dismay, Anne seemed unwilling to let the word go. ‘I’m sorry, but this doesn’t make any sense.’

Confronted with this pertinacity, Gilbert felt his patience give out a little. If she wanted it spelled out for her, she was going to get it.

‘Of that bloke you say is your brother, mostly,’ he said with a shrug. ‘But I guess I was jealous of Gardner the day we met when I saw how he looked at you, and of Moody after the wedding when you seemed to be so much more at your ease with him than with me, and— well, I suppose I was even jealous of Bash when you would joke with him so unreservedly and—‘

‘Jesus, Gil, are you crazy?’ she interrupted with an awkward titter, her eyes still somewhat bewildered. ‘I’m sorry, but this is simply—well, I don’t really know what to tell you, even.’ She began to laugh, at first uncertainly, then, as she saw his offended expression, more openly. ‘I’m sorry,’ she repeated between bursts of laughter, ‘but you should see your face.’

He rolled his eyes, but was so happy to see her laugh that he simply couldn’t bring himself to mind that it was at his own expense.

‘I don’t see why you’re so surprised,’ he persisted, now smiling widely in response to her amusement. ‘It’s not like one gets to meet an intelligent, beautiful, and, may I add, immensely rich girl every day.’

Anne scrunched up her nose. ‘That’s rather far-fetched, but I’ll take it in the spirit in which it’s offered.’ Then, becoming serious once again, she went on, looking him full in the eyes, ‘Listen, Gil, I don’t want you to blame yourself for—for what happened. You didn’t know I was pregnant, so you could not possibly—well, you couldn’t foresee the consequences of what—what happened that night.’

It was Gilbert who looked away this time, guilt gnawing at his insides with renewed force.

‘It was my duty to take you to hospital straight away,’ he said flatly. ‘It’s as simple as that, Anne.’

‘Then you would have had to use main force, because I would never have gone of my own free will as long as everything was reasonably okay,’ she countered angrily. ‘Gilbert, for God’s sake, look at me—‘ With a nervous, sudden movement she clutched at his shoulder to make him face her. ‘You know who the father of that baby was?’ she asked a in desperately calm kind of voice, her eyes boring themselves into his. ‘The husband of a girl who has been my best friend since we were eleven. Do you still pity me now?’

‘I don’t pity you,’ Gilbert replied simply, returning her scorching gaze levelly. ‘I simply wish you didn’t have to go through this, and can’t help feeling responsible—‘

‘And I tell you not to!’ she cried, putting her hands up to her forehead in a frantic gesture. ‘I tell you I wouldn’t have gone. I was afraid—I still am—that they might trace me and—‘ she broke off with an exhausted sigh, hiding her face in her palms.

‘But—but it’s not a criminal offence to—to, I don’t know, have an affair with someone else’s husband,’ blundered Gilbert, frowning slightly. ‘I’m not saying it’s anything to be proud of, but it’s not like your friend is entitled to hound you down and have you put in jail—‘

‘She doesn’t know,’ interrupted Anne without looking up. ‘Diana – my friend – she has no idea why I went away. And I’m certain she’s moving earth and heaven right now to find me. Because,’ she finished bitterly, ‘she’s the best, kindest, most caring person I know.’

Gilbert who was feeling more bewildered by the second, said slowly, ‘Then—I’m sorry, I know I have no right to say this, but wouldn’t it have been better to simply have told her the truth and face the consequences? Surely that would have been better than moving halfway across the globe and marrying a complete stranger?’ he added with a rather failed attempt at humour.

Anne looked up at him blankly.

‘And let her know her husband is a—‘ she stopped, swallowing hard and averting her gaze, ‘is not who she thinks he is? She wouldn’t believe me, or she would, and be brokenhearted,’ her voice rose in pitch, and Gilbert saw her wring her hands painfully. ‘She really loves him. She’s probably pregnant with him herself by now. It would ruin her life to learn that—‘

By now, Gilbert was beginning to have a vague glimpse, a menacing premonition of Anne’s real meaning. Feeling, all of a sudden, rather sick, he reached out and put his hand on her wrist, thus drawing her attention back to himself.

‘Anne,’ he asked in a voice he strove and failed to make sound normal, ‘did he—do you mean that that man actually forced you to—‘

He simply could not bring himself to finish, but Anne’s sudden paleness told him he was right even before she spoke.

‘I don’t suppose it would have qualified as rape in court,’ she said flatly. ‘He knew that I’d always had something of a crush on him, he was so handsome and considerate—‘ She let out a shuddering breath, her fingers closing around Gilbert’s. ‘Well, he was not very considerate that night,’ she went on with a shrug. ‘But I was so drunk I hardly knew what I was doing and — and he said he would drive me home, and then he helped me up the stairs and then—‘ She shook her head, looking away.

Unthinkingly, Gilbert reached up to touch her cheek and make her look back at him. He was half afraid she’d push him away, but she didn’t. Instead, she gazed at him with eyes that were enormous and that seemed to hold just as enormous quantities of suffering.

‘Anne, he took advantage of you, so much is plain,’ he said quietly. ‘He took advantage of the state you were in—‘

‘But, Gilbert,’ she interrupted with a scowl, ‘don’t you see? I slept with my best friend’s husband! It doesn’t matter whether I was drunk or not! But, oh my God!’ suddenly breaking into a new access of sobs, ‘I simply didn’t have the presence of mind to stop it, it all seemed so unreal, I just. . . I only really realised what had happened when it was all over, and then what could I have done? He just laughed and said—he said some really disgusting things. . . Oh my God, you must think me such a slut!’

She tried to turn away once again, but Gilbert, whose brain was reeling with rage against that unknown man, caught her face between his two hand.

‘Anne, this wasn’t your fault,’ he said earnestly, holding her gaze. ‘He saw you were half passed out with alcohol and took advantage of you. None of it was your fault. And none of what is happening now is punishment,’ he added, somehow sensing that Anne was very probably seeing it just that way.

She closed her eyes, inhaling deeply. Gilbert slowly took his hands away from her face and, to prevent himself from reaching for her hands instead, folded them across his chest.

‘The month after that was the most horrible month of my life,’ Anne went on slowly after a moment’s silence. ‘Every time I saw him with Diana, I felt sick. And then I realised I was feeling sick for quite a different reason to.’ She gave him a rueful smile. ‘I thought I was going mad, paranoid. But it was true. I was pregnant with Fred. Do you see now that I couldn’t have stayed? And I couldn’t tell Diana where I went, because then she would eventually want to come see me, and what if the child was like him in appearance? Well,’ she finished bitterly, ‘at least now that isn’t a problem anymore.’

Gilbert could think of no good reply to this, but there was something else that kept nagging at his brain. He waited a moment, watching Anne fidget with the hem of her shirt, and then he asked tentatively,

‘But now you can at least stop hiding, can’t you? I mean, it’s not that I want you gone, because that’s the last thing I—‘ he stopped, feeling like an utter fool. ‘What I mean is that now you can let your friend – Diana – know where you are, right?’

It seemed to him that he saw a slight tremor pass over Anne’s face. However, when she looked up at him, her expression was relatively collected.

‘Yeah,’ she said in no particular tone at all. ‘I can. I can go back to pretending I never fucked her husband.’

‘Anne, you know this isn’t—‘

‘Yes, I know,’ she interrupted sharply. ‘But what else would going back mean?’

‘Then don’t go back,’ Gilbert blurted out before he could stop himself. Anne’s eyebrows shot up at the somewhat desperate urgency of his tone, but he simply couldn’t bother to control it right now. All he could think of was getting her to stay. ‘I mean it. Stay here. It’s as good a place to start again as anywhere else.’

‘This?’ she asked with an small ironical smirk, looking round the cramped room.

‘You said yourself you can afford a nice apartment,’ he pointed out, smiling as well. ‘And I’d come visit in the afternoon, so that you wouldn’t feel too homesick.’

Anne’s face fell as suddenly as, a few moments before, it had brightened up. ‘You mean you want me to move out? And soon?’

‘What? No!’ Gilbert rejoined rather more abruptly than he’d meant to, making Anne stare confusedly. ‘I don’t want you to move out of here, and I certainly don’t want you to go back to Europe, and you know that,’ he went on, with the uncomfortable awareness that he was talking rather like a lovesick teenager but determined to make the question clear. ‘What I mean is that now you can stop—I don’t know, I guess hiding would be the word. If you’re determined to keep what happened between you and that bastard secret from your friend then fine, but you can at least write to her and let her know where you are, so that she knows you’re safe and—‘

‘Safe!’

The tone in which she had repeated the word made Gilbert stop mid-sentence.

Aren’t you safe?’ he queried tentatively as she remained silent.

She turned towards him with a smile that did not reflect in her eyes, and reached out to give his hand a gentle squeeze.

‘Of course I am,’ she said quietly, and before he could ask her just what more she was keeping back from him she leant forward and placed a kiss on his cheek. Her lips lingered against it a heartbeat longer than was necessary, so that he was able to register the way her breath, when it tickled his skin, sent a shiver all down his spine.

Fortunately, before his body had the time to react and do something terribly stupid such as pull her into a real kiss, she pulled away and, rising swiftly from the couch, said in a voice which, although she obviously strove to make it sound light-hearted, seemed strangely, gratingly tinny,

‘If you’ll go get the groceries I undertake to cook a really good dinner, so that when my marching orders come you won’t be able to say I was a total let-down as a wife.’

His heart in his throat, Gilbert watched her make out a list of things for him to buy.

Chapter Text

In the event, Anne never cooked that dinner.

The next morning, as he watched her move around the flat in her usual brisk manner, Gilbert noticed a frown of pain and irritation cross her face from time to time; and, although she was obviously doing all she could to suppress it, he was eventually induced to ask, in a voice he tried to make sound casual,

‘You’re not planning on going out today, are you?’

Anne, who had just sat down opposite him with a cup of steaming coffee in her hands, froze. Then, slowly, she lifted her eyes to his.

‘Why not?’

Gilbert could have rolled his eyes with exasperation. There she sat, looking the victim of long and painful illness – and she still had the nerve to ask why not.

‘Because,’ he replied with exaggerated distinctness, looking her straight in the eyes. ‘I honestly don’t think you’re strong enough for that yet. And I’d—‘ he went on, somewhat less forcibly, looking away, ‘I’d be far less worried about you throughout the day if you promised you won’t.’

At that, Anne’s eyes sparkled with an incipient smile.

‘I do promise I won’t, then,’ she said, and as that wholly unexpected compliance made Gilbert glance up in patent surprise, she added with ironical meekness, ‘At least, I won’t go walking out. I might go sitting out if I feel really in need of fresh air. It won’t kill me to go out into that square right opposite this building and sit quietly on a bench for a moment or two, will it, doctor?’

Gilbert couldn’t help a slight frown at the epithet. Somehow, he did not find the subject in the least amusing.

‘It’s not like I’m exaggerating, you know,’ he said rather curtly, getting up from the table. ‘It’s you who keeps thinking – or rather, pretending to think – that if you gnash your teeth hard enough you can make your body endure anything. And it doesn’t work like that, and you should know that by now.’

He did not mean to sound harsh, but he really was just so, so bloody done standing by and watching that impossible girl experiment with how much trouble and pain she could take.

He did not want her to be in trouble and pain any more.

He wanted to make her feel safe, and to take care of her, and—and— and it was extremely frustrating to know that Anne didn’t seem to consider it even a hypothetical possibility that he did.

Going over to the front door, he pulled on his coat and shoes in silence, feeling he had said too much as it was, but at the same time unwilling to apologise for what was simply the truth.

Just as he was reaching for the handle, he felt a tentative hand touch his arm.

‘Gilbert?’

He turned round.

Anne was looking up at him with a fixed, tense expression. Without letting go of his sleeve, she said falteringly,

‘I’m sorry I teased you like that just now. I know you want to—I know you wish me well.’

Gilbert looked back into her eyes, defiant and pleading and encircled by deep shadows, and felt the urge to take her face between his hands and—

‘It’s okay,’ he said, shrugging and giving her a somewhat wry smile. ‘It’s just that—I just wish you weren’t so careless about your own safety. But of course I’ve no right to tell you what to do, and anyway we both know you’re going to act as you please.’

Biting her lip, Anne looked down and, letting go of the fabric of his coat, took his hand in both hers, causing Gilbert’s heart to skip about ten beats at once.

‘I meant what I said before. I won’t go trampling round. I’ll only go and sit quietly out there in the square for a moment if I feel I can’t stand being caged in here any longer,’ she said, glancing up at him with an odd kind of determined earnestness.

‘All right,’ he said quietly, his throat completely dry.

Anne smiled, letting go of his hand.

He turned away from her, and with infinite effort managed to walk calmly out of the flat.

 

***

 

When Gilbert came back, dragging two bagfuls of the items Anne had made him out a list to buy the day before, she was, indeed, not in.

He looked out of the window in the direction of the small square opposite she had mentioned, and saw a figure in a gray overcoat huddled on one of the benches, a windswept cascade of red hair falling forward as she bent over what was presumably a book.

In spite of himself and the anxiety gnawing at his heart, he smiled.

He was just finishing the unpacking of the groceries when there was a sharp, peremptory knock at the front door.

Frowning, he went to open it.

It was Christine Stewart.                                     

‘Hullo,’ she said, smiling at him dazzlingly. ‘May I come in?’

And she did without waiting for an answer.

‘I am desperately in need of your help, Gilbert darling,’ she continued in studiedly dejected tones as he closed the door and turned towards her with an inquisitive lift of his brows.

‘Yes?’ he managed, trying hard not sound as irritated as he felt.

The truth was, he was becoming rather irritated with Christine’s persistent pursuit of his person. She was the younger sister of one of his fellow students, and he had once, in a moment of what he had come to regard as particular folly, agreed to tutor her in algebra.

She was then in her last year of high school. Now she was a first-year student of pharmacology, and from time to time she still managed to come up with a problem she fancied she needed his help in overcoming.

‘I need you to help me with a few chemistry exercises. They are absolutely beyond me,’ Christine said with a sigh of exaggerated weariness. ‘I simply cannot imagine why I need to know all that gibberish.’

Gilbert sighed internally, at the same time concluding that it was probably best to get this over with quick, so that nothing – least of all Christine Stewart – should stand in the way of his evening alone with Anne.

This thought – the thought of spending time with Anne in the quiet of his – their – own flat – made him at once extremely happy and angry with himself for being happy.

Telling himself that he was the biggest bloody idiot on planet Earth, he said rather more curtly than he’d meant to,

‘Well—have you brought them, then? I mean, the exercise sheets, or whatever it is?’

Christine looked so genuinely taken aback by his tone that Gilbert felt ashamed of himself and, flashing her an apologetic smile, added quickly,

‘I’m sorry. It’s just – I’ve had a long week. But of course I’ll help you if you need it.’

This was enough to make the girl brighten up instantaneously.

‘Oh, thank you!’ she exclaimed, taking a step closer. ‘Really, I don’t know what I’d do without you. You’re quite my own personal knight in shining armour! Only,’ she added, pouting disconsolately, ‘I’ve not got the – the papers with me. But perhaps you could come over tomorrow evening, and we’d have a look at them then?’

Gilbert felt as though he’d inadvertently set foot on quicksand and was being pulled under without hope of salvation.

Then, however, he realised that this suggestion meant that, for the present, he would get rid of Christine sooner than he’d hoped to and in consequence get to spend more time alone with Anne, and he said with a smile caused entirely by the latter thought,

‘Yeah, I suppose that’s fine by me.’

At that, Christine gave him her most charming smile and, putting her hands on his shoulders, touched his cheek with her lips.

This was something she kept doing whenever chance offered, and at first Gilbert was resolved to take it as philosophically as he usually did.

Presently, however, he felt her shift a little, and her lips moved from his cheek onto his lips.

Christine was kissing him. On the mouth.

He put up his hands to her arms in an attempt to break the caress off as gently as was possible. The girl might be infatuated and silly, but Gilbert couldn’t help wishing to cause her as little pain as possible.

At the same moment, he heard the door open with a creak of the hinges and his eyes, which were open, met Anne’s.

She stood frozen to the spot, regarding the pair in front of her with an expressionless face.

On her side, Christine finally realised that her efforts were not destined to be reciprocated. She let go of Gilbert with a frown, but as soon as she noticed Anne’s presence in the room her signature saccharine smile crept back into her face.

‘Oh, how awkward!’ she twittered with a small, insinuating giggle. ‘I suppose you really ought to have locked that door with a key, Gilbert darling.’

Gilbert paid no attention to this idiotic remark.

‘Anne,’ he said quickly, taking a step in her direction. ‘It’s not what you—‘

‘I’m extremely sorry to interrupt you,’ Anne said in a clear, measured voice, passing him by with her eyes averted and going over to where the suitcase in which she still kept most of her things stood beside the couch she’d bought. ‘I should have knocked, of course. But I’m going out presently, and you’ll have the place to yourselves for the rest of the day.’

‘Anne, don’t—‘

Anne took her toilet bag out of the suitcase, stuffed it into her bag, snapped the suitcase closed, and stood up with a smile plastered over her face and directed at Christine, who was regarding her movements with wide-open eyes.

‘Have a nice afternoon,’ she said in the same unnatural tones. ‘I sure am going to.’

She marched to the front door, but before she could reach it Gilbert caught her by the wrist.

She turned upon him with her eyes flashing, and hissed through her teeth,

‘Let me go. We’re making your friend uncomfortable.’

‘Anne, you must—you have to let me explain,’ Gilbert said with quiet insistence. ‘It’s not in the least what it seems— Christine was just leaving anyway—‘

‘Oh, shut the bloody fuck up,’ she snapped, disengaging herself from his grasp.

But before she could take a step, he caught at her hand once more.

‘At least tell me where you’re going.’

She was silent.

‘Anne, please.’

‘I’m going over to Phil’s. I need her help with something. Satisfied?’ she inquired with a sneer, giving him a look which made his stomach drop.

‘Can’t it wait?’ he asked, fairly desperate to stop her from leaving while she was under the misapprehension that he had actually meant to return Christine’s kiss. ‘Anne, it’s all a terrible mistake—‘

‘Yes,’ she put in quietly, looking him straight in the eyes. ‘It is a mistake. All of it.’

Her words and the voice in which she said them were like a slap in the face.

Feeling cold all over, Gilbert dropped her hand.

The ghastly smile reappeared on Anne’s face.

‘It was nice to meet you, Christine,’ she said cheerily, actually giving the other girl a small wave of the hand as she turned and, with a sharp bang, closed the front door on them.

There was a moment of complete silence.

‘Wow,’ said Christine eventually, her voice tinged with a mingle of disgust and bewilderment. ‘Who was that person? A fellow student of yours? Does she live with you?’

‘Yes,’ replied Gilbert shortly. Internally he was fairly shaking with anger.

Christine stared. ‘Is she—is she your girlfriend?’

‘No.’

‘Who is she, then? Perhaps,’ she went on with a malicious little giggle which made Gilbert clench his teeth, ‘perhaps she’s a case study assigned to you? I mean, she did kind of look and act like an escaped mental patient.’

Gilbert looked at her, and his expression instantly checked her amusement.

‘Christine, I think you’d better go,’ he said quietly. ‘And I suppose it’s only fair I let you know I don’t like the way you talk about my wife.’

‘Your—your what?’ she stuttered. ‘You don’t mean to say you’re actually married to—to that—that girl?’

‘That is exactly what I mean.’

‘But—but why on earth would you marry a person like that?’ Christine blurted out, incomprehension getting the better of her usual poise. ‘I simply do not understand it!’

‘Fortunately, you don’t have to,’ Gilbert said snappishly, his irritation increasing with every word the girl uttered. ‘But if you must know, I married her because I love her. So I suppose I don’t really have to tell you that there’s never going to be anything between you and me.’

Christine’s cheeks reddened.

‘Oh,’ she said simply.

‘I’m sorry,’ Gilbert added, although he wasn’t really. Christine was not one to die of unrequited love.

‘I see,’ she said, shrugging and moving towards the door. ‘I suppose you’d rather not come over tomorrow, then?’

‘That’s right.’

Christine nodded, reached for the handle, and then, giving him an ironical smile over her shoulder, said with venomous amicability,

‘I wish you joy of your married life, Gilbert.’

And she left, closing the door carefully behind herself.

Gilbert stood immovable for some moments. Then, slowly, he turned round and went up to the table.

And then, with a furious curse, he kicked at one of the chairs with a ferociousness which sent it crashing into the wall to the accompaniment of the sound of splitting wood.

Chapter Text

Gilbert spent an awful night, mostly lying awake and wondering whether Anne indeed had gone to Phil’s, and if she had, whether she’d managed to arrive there without trouble overtaking her, as it seemed to have a way of doing, before she could reach a place of safety.

By the time it was time for him to leave the flat in the morning, she had not come back, and the one call he had made had not been answered.

This drove him to text Phil, asking her whether she had put Anne up for the night.

The reply was a short but satisfactory “Yes”.

 

***

 

As soon as he set foot inside the flat on his arrival back from university, his heart sunk.

The couch Anne had been sleeping on had disappeared, and the few personal odds and ends she had strewn around during her sojourn had been all tidied away as well.

In the circumstances, it was a relief to see her suitcase still standing in its usual corner. If nothing else, she had to come back for that, and then he might at least try to talk to her, and convince her to stay.

It was at the moment when he reached that cheerful conclusion that the front door burst open, and he turned round to see Anne poised on the threshold.

She was very pale but appeared calm, her face a mask of indifference.

For a few seconds, they looked at each other in silence. Then, just as Gilbert was gathering courage to speak, she forestalled him by saying rather abruptly,

‘Phil’s mother found us a flat. It’s not far from here, so you’ll have equally good access to the hospital and your university.’

Gilbert’s eyebrows shot up. This was not what he had expected.

A flat?’ he stuttered eventually, as Anne was evidently waiting for a response and he could think of absolutely nothing to say. ‘Phil’s mother?’

‘Yes. Didn’t you know she’s the head of an estate agency?’ Anne said, breaking eye contact and walking over to the kitchenette counter to pour herself out a glass of water. ‘Now I know who Phil takes after. You know, with regard to being so efficient and capable in all kinds of situations. They both were really wonderful yesterday—I mean, when I went to ask them for advice with regard to our moving out of this den. The flat they found us is both furnished and vacant, so we can move in right away. As you see, I’m ready to go, and if you want to I can help you pack up your things—‘

She kept talking, faster and faster, her assumed composure cracking down and her voice pitched unnaturally, until Gilbert felt he simply couldn’t stand it any longer.

Taking a few determined steps, he stopped right in front of her, and she fell silent mid-sentence, her eyes wide and inquiring.

Well?’ she asked eventually, putting the glass down with a hand which, as Gilbert only realised now, was trembling violently.

Unthinkingly, he reached out and took it in his own.

‘Anne—’

‘Oh, please, won’t you even think it over?’ she asked feverishly, her fingers wrapping themselves around his convulsively. ‘You’ll have a room all to yourself – you won’t even notice I’m there – I swear I’ll never again behave in the way I did yesterday – I don’t know what’s come over me – I—I suppose I was just surprised, and—‘

She was fairly choking on her words now and, letting go of her hand and instead reaching up to cup her face, thus forcing her to look straight at him, Gilbert said with slow, quiet deliberation,

‘Anne, you are completely, entirely wrong about what happened here yesterday. There is absolutely nothing between me and Christine. There never will be. She kissed me, and it took me completely by surprise, and before I had time to react you came in. But I never in any way encouraged her to do it. I swear to you I didn’t. I swear it, Anne.’

Her eyes were fixed on his, unblinking and strangely bright, but she was silent.

‘Anne, I don’t care about—about anyone else,’ he stuttered, and then, impelled by the way she kept gazing into his eyes as though it was her uttermost soul looking out, he repeated in a voice which had practically become a whisper, ‘Not about anyone else.’

At that, she finally reacted.

‘Don’t say such—things,’ she said sharply, shutting her eyes and trying to wrench herself away from his grasp. ‘I don’t want to hear it.’

‘It’s true,’ he said stubbornly. ‘Anne, look at me.’

She did, and if her eyes had seemed to him bright before they were now positively magnetic.

‘Don’t say it,’ she repeated quietly, at the same time putting her fingers up to his cheek.

This time, it was he whose eyes fluttered momentarily closed at the unexpected, regrettably elusive caress.

Recklessly desperate to prolong the moment, he covered her fingers with his own and kissed the inside of her palm.

Gilbert,’ she breathed, the word half a sigh, half a reproof.

Their faces were now so close to each other that he could feel the warmth of her breath on his neck.

Allô? Anne? Are you up there?’

Anne’s eyes opened wide in bewildered, frightened recollection.

She fairly jumped away from Gilbert and, without another look in his direction, her hands flying to her flushed cheeks as though in an attempt to cool them, she moved quickly towards the front door and, opening it, called out,

‘Here! The third floor!’

Mon Dieu, this is ridiculous!’

In another second, she was back by his side.

‘Jerry doesn’t know,’ she whispered feverishly, her eyes only making contact with his for the shortest moment. ‘Not about the—the baby, not why I married you. And he mustn’t know. Please.’

All Gilbert had time to do was nod.

The next moment, Jerry Barnard appeared at the threshold, looking round himself in patent incomprehension.

Gilbert felt Anne’s hand slide into his, and then she pulled him forward to greet the other man.

‘Jerry, this is Gilbert,’ she said, her voice clear and cheerful. ‘Gilbert, this is Jerry, my brother.’

Jerry gave Gilbert a broad smile and, proffering a hand which the other shook, said with a laugh,

‘So, I suppose this is the moment when I tell you that if you ever make my little sister cry, you’ll have me to deal with.’

‘I’m hardly your “little” sister, Jerry,’ Anne said with a roll of her eyes before Gilbert could reply. ‘I’m years older than you.’

‘Ah, oui. She’s always been like that – argumentative,’ said Jerry, addressing himself to Gilbert.

‘Yes,’ the latter replied shortly. ‘I’ve noticed as much.’

Jerry burst out laughing. ‘Anne, I think you must try and be more sympathique around your husband. He does not seem pleased with your comportement.’

‘I never said—‘

‘You’re not funny, Jerry,’ Anne said snappishly, taking her hand away from Gilbert’s and crossing her arms belligerently on her chest.

‘Me? It’s you two who look as though you’re attending a funeral. But tell me,’ Jerry went on, his face resuming the original bewildered look as he gazed round the cramped apartment, ‘why do I find you in this—this place? No wonder you look so miserable, living cooped up in here!’

‘That’s exactly why I called you,’ answered Anne briskly, evidently resolved on not allowing the situation to get any more awkward. ‘Have you brought the car?’

Oui.’

‘Good. We’re moving out. Only, we’re not quite ready yet. I mean, Gil isn’t,’ she amended quickly.

‘Ah, Gil isn’t.’

Anne’s cheeks went scarlet.

‘Yes,’ she said, taking hold of her own suitcase and stuffing it into Jerry’s arms. ‘So, why don’t you take this down to the car, and you can drive me over and I’ll try to get things in some kind of order, and we’ll come back for Gilbert when he’s ready packing up. Is that all right?’ she inquired, sending Gilbert a quick, sidelong look.

‘Yes,’ he said.

He realised he was doing a terrible job playing his part, but the truth was he was feeling downright disgusted with himself.

‘I don’t think you’re working hard enough at being your husband’s helpmate, Anne,’ Jerry observed with a grin. ‘You ought to stay here and pack up for him while he sits around giving orders. It says so in la Bible.’

‘Sure, like you’ve read it,’ Anne said, a slight smile lightening up her face nonetheless as Jerry continued to grin at her. ‘Off with you. I’ll join you in a minute.’

‘Ah, oui, make sure to say au revoir to your husband properly.’

‘I said, off with you!’

She fairly pushed him out of the door, shutting it closed with a snap.

Then she turned round, the smile caused by their banter still lingering on her lips.

As soon, however, as her eyes met Gilbert’s, it faded into the drawn, anxious frown he had come to know so well.

She looked away and stood irresolute for a moment, and then, taking a nervous, quick breath, asked rapidly, her eyes shooting back to his,

‘Are you angry with me?’

‘No,’ he replied simply.

‘I mean,’ she continued, wringing her hands anxiously, ‘because I’ve taken the flat without consulting you.’

‘No, Anne, I’m not angry because of that,’ Gilbert repeated, his voice somewhat curt in spite of his resolve to control himself. ‘Nor because of anything else, either.’

She bit her lip, looking away.

‘You ought to be,’ Anne said eventually, a challenging quality sneaking into her eyes as she glanced at him again. ‘It would all be so much easier for me if you were.’

‘Well, I’m not. I’ve tried to, you know,’ he added with a wry smile. ‘But I don’t think I can. At least, not for long.’

A fresh wave of red flooded her cheeks at that, and she put up a hand to her forehead with a vexed, impatient movement.

‘You can’t—‘ she begun, but at the same time her phone began ringing with a viciously loud ringtone, and she fairly jumped at the sound.

‘It’s Jerry,’ she said, rejecting the call. ‘I’ve got to go— Will you be all right packing on your own?’

‘Sure,’ Gilbert said dully.

She nodded distractedly and, grabbing her coat, left the room without another look in his direction.

Chapter Text

Jerry came back just as Gilbert was zipping up his suitcase. They left the flat in awkward silence, and it was only when they were starting the car that Jerry finally spoke.

‘I don’t mean to sound – what do you call it – er, nosy,’ he said, giving the other a quick, sideways glance as he backed the car out of the parking spot. ‘But Anne doesn’t look too well. She seems terribly worn out, to be honest.’

Gilbert’s stomach sank.

‘Yes,’ he agreed briefly. ‘I know that. She’s been ill recently.’

‘Ill?’ Jerry repeated, his tones suspicious. ‘Ill with what?’

Gilbert had long ago flung his native truthfulness to the winds.

‘Influenza,’ he lied without missing a beat.

‘Ah,’ Jerry seemed much appeased at the thought of so mundane a cause for Anne’s lack of spirits and vitality. ‘Je vois. Yes, truth is she’s always been kind of prone to all kinds of viruses. She’s not had what you’d call a careful upbringing.’

Gilbert did not like to pretend he knew anything besides the vaguest fact that Anne had spent most of her childhood in, alternately, orphanages and foster families, so he merely said,

‘No, I don’t suppose she did.’

‘You know,’ Jerry went on conversationally, ‘she’s been through some really nasty stuff as a kid. It was different for me – I wasn’t really an orphan, only very poor. But Anne – I mean, she’s never really talked to me about it, but I gather from what I’ve heard here and there that she’d never been treated decently until she came to live with the Cuthberts. So, I suppose she kind of has a right to be happy now, non?’

‘Yes. I know that,’ said Gilbert, clenching his jaw as he looked gloomily out of the car window. ‘Look here, Jerry,’ he went on, doing his best not to sound harsh, ‘I know what you’re driving at. I know you probably think that it’s my fault Anne is not doing well at the moment, but I swear to you it isn’t, and that I’ll do all I can to make her feel better and happier.’

He spoke with increasing and quite unintended fervour, by which Jerry was visibly taken aback.

Mon Dieu, I never meant to imply I blame you, buddy,’ he said with an awkward chuckle. ‘Anne’s already told me you’re very good to her. And as she’s no saint, I don’t suppose you’ve got an easy job of it.’

Gilbert forced a distracted smile at that, his mind riveted to the one crucial phrase, Anne’s told me you’re very good to her.

Indeed, he thought bitterly, he was very good to her, so very bloody good that every day she since the day he’d agreed to marry her she seemed to have waded deeper into misfortune and misery.

 

***

 

The apartment was, in comparison with the one Gilbert had lived in before, a palace: it had a huge living and dining space and an adjacent, glossy kitchen. In the wall facing the entrance there were three pairs of hardwood doors.

Anne looked up from the table she was setting for three.

‘Welcome home,’ she said, smiling at him with a kind of shy uncertainty. ‘How do you like it?’

Putting his suitcase down and beginning to unbutton his coat, Gilbert looked round with lifted brows.

‘It looks—expensive,’ he said eventually.

He instantly regretted the remark.

Expensive!’ Anne repeated sharply, putting the forks she was holding in her hand down on the table with a loud bang. ‘Is money all you ever think about? Anyway,’ she added, a grimace Gilbert disliked very much appearing on her lips, ‘I suppose I out to thank you for the reminder.’

‘For God’s sake, Anne, what reminder?’ he countered angrily, the weariness of the sleepless night and the long, eventful day momentarily clouding his better judgement, ‘We really are never getting anywhere past the point of you thinking I only mean the worst, are we?’

Anne eyes opened wide in a kind of frightened surprise at this small outburst. She opened her mouth as though to say something, but then closed it again and turned back towards the table.

Having hung his coat up in the big sliding-door closet and cleared his throat two or three times, Gilbert said in a would-be neutral tone,

‘Jerry said to tell you he’s not coming up. He said he’d drop in some other time.’

Anne was silent. She collected the unnecessary third setting and moved away towards the kitchen part of the room.

With a sigh, Gilbert went up to the table and sat down rather gingerly on the nearest chair. Shutting his eyes, he put his hand up to his forehead and rubbed it irritably in the hope that his head might stop aching.

‘Don’t be silly and seat yourself properly,’ he heard Anne say briskly. ‘This is a house, not a museum. And anyway, you didn’t seem so very concerned about the state of your old chairs, throwing them around all over the place.’

He looked up. She was leaning over the table, serving out onto the two plates something which smelled extremely nice.

Presently, she straightened up and met his eyes.

They looked at each other in silence for a moment, each defying the other to look away first. They seemed to be doing that a lot, Gilbert realised.

‘I only spoiled one chair,’ he said eventually.

‘One too many,’ Anne countered promptly, sitting down opposite him. ‘A regrettable manifestation of physical violence.’

Gilbert could not help the small smile which tugged at the corners of his lips at her haughtily admonitory tones.

‘It was just an old piece of furniture, Anne.’

‘Well, you did resort to physical violence all the same. And for no reason at all.’

No reason?’ he repeated incredulously, staring at her while she returned the gaze with a kind of infuriatingly cool poise. ‘Anne, you are the most impossible—‘

‘Eat up,’ she interrupted peremptorily. ‘Or it’ll get cold, and you’ll not be able to appreciate my merits as a cook.’

Feeling at a complete loss at this sudden reversal to utter practicality, Gilbert obeyed.

The food was delicious.

‘Mmm, this is nice,’ he said, unable to hide his surprise.

Anne tried to look offended, but failed.

‘I told you I was a good cook,’ she said, her face finally breaking into a genuine, wide smile. ‘I’m glad we agree on that point.’

‘We definitely do,’ he said, grinning back. ‘And I’m not really surprised. I should have known you were one of the prodigies of nature – you know, speaking multiple languages, probably playing multiple instruments, cooking like a pro—‘

‘I don’t play any instruments,’ Anne put in, shrugging. ‘And I only speak all those languages because I learned them the easiest way, by hearing them used all around on a daily basis. There’s no merit in that.’

‘Did you learn cooking by casually hanging around five-star hotel chefs?’ Gilbert quipped, hoping to get her to smile at him again.

In this he miserably failed. Her face went momentarily expressionless as she looked down at her plate.

‘The people I stayed with as foster parents when I was fourteen were owners of a restaurant in a ski resort,’ she said eventually without looking up, her voice dull. ‘I—they had ways of convincing me I wanted to help in the kitchen.’

Gilbert felt a lump rise up in his throat.

‘Anne—‘

‘But,’ she went on hurriedly, visibly making an effort to sound light-hearted, ‘if it hadn’t been for that you wouldn’t be eating this delicious dinner now, so I suppose it was all for the best, wasn’t it?’

She looked up at him with her eyes bright and a small, playful smile as she said it, and – as always when she did that – Gilbert couldn’t help responding with a smile of his own, even though her incidental semi-confession had inspired him with the desire to root out everyone who’d ever done Anne wrong and see to it that they paid for it.

They ate in thoughtful silence for a few moments; then Anne said rather abruptly,

‘I hope Jerry hasn’t been talking any nonsense while driving you here.’

 ‘To the contrary,’ Gilbert said, giving her a somewhat wry smile. ‘What he said was perfectly true, and was to the effect that being married to me does not seem to agree with you.’

Anne stared. ‘Not agree with me? What do you mean? I never said anything like that to him. And,’ she added, looking away, ‘I never thought or felt like that either. I’d be an ungracious fool if I did. You have never been other than extremely helpful to me, and—‘

‘Anne, don’t,’ he stopped her, frowning slightly. ‘That’s not what I meant at all. And I know you’ve got little enough to thank me for, there’s no need to pretend otherwise. But—‘

‘I have everything to thank you for,’ she interrupted, her face flushing up but her eyes fixed steadily on his. ‘You did come after me in that mall, and I realise now what might have happened if I got involved with that—that other guy. You have nothing to blame yourself for,’ she went on rather breathlessly, ‘and Jerry’s a mutt to interfere. You’re doing so much more than our agreement obliges you to— I know it is not in the least your business to—to look out for me, and I want you know that I appreciate that.’

Throughout this hurried, disjointed speech, Gilbert merely sat looking on at her with his heart clenched and his expression, he hoped, merely neutral, and not letting on how much he wanted to just tell her to stop going on in this horrid, businesslike manner.

Still, something in his face must have struck her, for she stopped rather abruptly, an even darker blush overspreading her cheeks and her hands flying once again up to them in their agitated, compulsive fashion.

They sat in uncomfortable silence for some moments after that, playing with rather than eating their food. Eventually, Anne said falteringly, looking down at her plate,

‘Will it be okay if you put some of your things – you know, those you don’t use on a daily basis – in my room? You know, just in case—so that it’s not obvious we sleep separately—‘

‘Sure,’ he said.

Their eyes met across the table. Anne’s were wide and limpid, and for a moment Gilbert forgot all about how bitter and hopeless this situation kept seeming to be.

Anne stood up with an abrupt screech of her chair.

‘But we can deal with that tomorrow,’ she said, collecting the dirty plates. ‘It’s Saturday anyway. Today, I’m totally done in. I’m heading straight to bed as soon as I’ve cleaned up this mess.’’

‘No, leave it,’ Gilbert said quickly, getting up as well. ‘I’ll wash up.’

‘So, you consider I’ve done my share of wifely duties for the day?’

It was only when he looked at her that he saw, by the sparkle in her eyes, that she was joking.

He smiled back, relieved that he had not committed another one of those blunders with which every single conversation between them seemed inevitably fraught.

 

***

 

Gilbert was so exhausted, and his new bed so comfortable, that, for all his internal turmoil, he fell asleep within five minutes of his head touching the pillow.

He awoke in the dead of night, and for some seconds the awareness that he could not hear Anne’s breathing caused him to relive the anxiety of the night before.

Then he remembered where he was, and that they no longer shared a room. Anne was probably deeply grateful for that, he realised, and could not help feeling a bitter pang at the thought.

He was terribly thirsty, and, as noiselessly as he could, went out into the big main space of the flat in search of something to drink.

It was only when he was going back to his room, his hand already on the handle, that, coming from the room occupied by Anne, he heard what sounded unmistakably like a half-stifled, choking sob.

His heart in his throat, he moved to stand directly opposite her door, and asked in an extremely awkward kind of half-whisper,

‘Anne? Are you awake? Is something wrong?’

There was no response save that the sobbing stopped, and even through the wall separating them Gilbert could tell that she was holding her breath.

Wholly prepared that she was going to throw him out by main force, he turned the handle, and slowly stepped into the pitch darkness within.

Chapter Text

Anne had not meant to spend the night crying.

To the contrary: she had looked forward (so she told herself) to finally enjoying that longed-for privacy of a room of her own, with no Gilbert on a couch bare three meters away.

And then, when after the first heavy sleep she woke up in her new huge bed and could only hear absolute silence and no trace of Gilbert’s steady, deep breathing, she felt chilled to the bone.

Immediately, she started revolving in her mind the events of the past few days.

Gilbert’s infinitely comforting presence at her side in the hospital and then his unjudgemental sympathy on the night she told him about her and Fred;

the anxious, earnest way in which he looked at her when he told her she didn’t take enough care of herself;

his desperation when he begged her to stay after she’d come in to see him with that beautiful, raven-haired girl;

the feeling of his hands cupping her face and his lips touching the inside of her palm, and how her heart had seemed to stop beating at that moment;

and, finally, the way she repaid him for all this, with temper tantrums, and incessant cattiness, and unfounded accusations.

She felt both deeply ashamed of herself and completely hopeless.

She was broken, at that was that. Her past was simply too terrible a muddle for her to allow herself to get involved with a good, honest, caring person like Gilbert.

She would only end up sullying him too. Hadn’t she already started doing that, anyway? She kept forcing him to lie for her sake, and she could see how much he hated doing it.

Yes. That’s what she was. A dirty orphan, a slut who had slept with her best friend’s husband. A person like her should be kept from even looking in the direction of a guy like Gilbert Blythe. There were few enough people like him left in the world as it was.

He deserved to get together with someone whose conscience and hands were as clean as his own, not be fettered to a worthless psycho like herself.

At this point in her cogitations, Anne was beginning to sob with a rather terrible intensity.

And then, she heard Gilbert’s voice just outside her door.

‘Anne? Are you awake? Is something wrong?’

She held her breath, almost choking on the sobs which shook her chest.

She prayed he might think he had not heard anything after all and leave her alone, and at the same time she felt a desperate longing deep inside herself for his presence by her side, for the warmth of his body next to hers, the sound of his voice and the sight of his dear, serious, considerate face.

And then she saw a crack of faint light as, slowly and carefully, he pushed the door open.

 

***

 

By the light of the lamp turned on in the corridor outside, Gilbert, who had not been in there before, could see the outline of the huge bed standing in the middle of Anne’s room, and on that bed the girl’s huddled, motionless form.

His throat completely dry, he took a step forward.

‘Anne, I know you’re not asleep,’ he said quietly. ‘I’ve heard you. What is wrong?’

She continued to lay silent and still and, the desire to talk to and comfort her driving all caution from his mind, Gilbert groped his way to where he could see a small lamp standing on a bedside table, and turned it on.

Anne’s eyes, enormous and glistening with tears, confronted his.

‘Hey,’ he said softly, sitting down on the extreme edge of the bed and reaching out gingerly to touch her sheet-covered arm.

To his relief, at that she finally resumed breathing – or rather, gulping the air in with shuddering, compulsive sobs.

‘Anne, don’t cry,’ he pleaded helplessly, his voice cracking a little as he edged closer to her, reaching up to brush stray hair away from her tear-stained face.

When his palm touched her cheek she trembled, and her arm shot out from beneath the covers she was swaddled in.

Gilbert fully expected her to slap his hand away.

Instead, her fingers closed round his wrist and, closing her eyes, she pressed his palm to her cheek.

‘Anne,’ he repeated, at a complete loss for words. ‘Anne, darling, don’t cry. Tell me what’s wrong. Tell me what I can do to help you. Please, Anne, I’ll do anything—‘

‘Can you—‘ she began, her voice raspy and barely audible. ‘Can you just hold me for a moment?’

Without another word, he was by her side, his arm around her as he gathered her to himself, feeling her whole frame trembling through the sheets she was wrapped in. Her hand came up to take his, and, once again, she put her cheek against it, the scent of her hair filling his nostrils as she nestled against his chest.

 

***

 

Anne wondered whether she was gone completely mad, and whether, sensing this, Gilbert merely decided to go along with her mad ideas and to then, come morning, convey her to a lunatic asylum.

But then, when she found herself pressed against him, the blessed scent of his skin all around and, it seemed, inside her, she stopped wondering, and merely revelled in the physical and mental relief his closeness brought her.

Slowly, the sobs which shook her subsided and her breathing came back to normal.

‘I’m sorry,’ she mumbled eventually, and felt his arm tighten around her at the sound of her voice. ‘I’m sorry, Gilbert. You must think I’m crazy.’

There was a moment of silence, and Anne wondered whether he could possibly have fallen asleep. She was almost resolved he must have, when she finally heard him say,

‘I don’t.’

‘I wish—I wish so much things were different,’ she went on, heedless of the fact that she was probably going to regret all of this when the morning came. ‘I wish I was just a nice, good girl that you met by accident and that you could like for who she was. I wish I didn’t have all that shitty past on my shoulders. I’m sorry. I’m—‘

She stopped, for at that moment she felt Gilbert shift, holding her away a little so that he could, in the light of the small bedside lamp, look at her.

His face was all shadows, and his eyes were sad, sad and serious.

‘Stop saying that,’ he said quietly. ‘None of what happened to you was your fault.’

‘It was, it was!’ she interrupted feverishly in spite of herself. ‘It was my fault I lost the baby. I—I did something terribly stupid.’

Gilbert’s eyebrows shot up. ‘Anne—‘

‘It’s true,’ she went on, seized with the desire to let him know just how worthless and stupid she was. ‘That day we quarrelled about Jerry, I thought I’d show you,’ she looked away, unable to stand Gilbert’s bewildered, searching gaze, ‘just how much of a slut I am. And I met up with one guy—but—but in the end I wasn’t able to do it, and—and he got annoyed and—I had to get out of his flat more or less by force—I don’t even know what happened exactly, I was so desperate to get out of there, it’s all a blur—You see, that’s what I am.’

All through this speech, Anne never once looked back up at Gilbert, and now there was a terrible silence between them which made her sick, and his arm was stiff around her, as though he was forcing himself not to tear it away.

Well, she didn’t wonder. That was it, then.

But she had to hear him say it, and he still didn’t speak. So, forcing herself to look up, she asked in a rather small voice,

‘Well?’

It gave her a momentary shock to see his face, it was so white and set. Then his eyes met hers and the fury she saw there made her recoil from him instinctively.

‘Who was it?’ he asked eventually, his voice terribly measured and hollow. ‘Who was it, Anne?’

‘You don’t know him,’ she lied promptly, without missing a beat.

There was no way she was telling him that, the way he was looking right now.

Gilbert’s mouth spread in a terrible, sardonic smile. ‘I’ll get to know him, then. And I’ll get him to pay for what he’s done to you.’

‘He’s not—‘

‘Anne, who was he?’

She met his eyes square on and, realising that yet another conversation had gone irredeemably wrong between them, lost her nerve completely.

‘I won’t tell you!’ she countered wildly. ‘You idiot, stop looking like this! Oh my God, I should never have said anything!’ she finished, putting her face in her hands and beginning, in spite of all she could do to stop herself, to cry once again.

There was a moment’s silence, and then Gilbert said quietly,

‘Don’t cry, Anne.’

She did not reply. Her one thought was that presently he would leave her alone with her demons again, and that she needed to conserve all her energy for when that happened.

But he did not leave.

Instead, she felt him slide closer and put his arm around her shoulders again, and pull her down into the position they had been in before the outburst.

The unlooked-for relief and happiness this brought her only served to make Anne cry more, burying her face in Gilbert’s T-shirt as he ran his fingers soothingly through her hair.

It was like this that she finally fell asleep, exhausted but, somehow, warm to the very core of her soul.

Chapter Text

On Saturday morning, Gilbert awoke to the combined shock of a completely unknown room and the feeling of Anne Shirley’s – Blythe’s – soft, warm body tucked into his, her back pressed to his chest, his arm around her waist, and his palm splayed against the smooth skin of her stomach where her pyjamas top had ridden up to reveal it.

It took him a moment to remember how he got there. And then it took him another to conclude that it was not advisable for him to remain where he was.

Accordingly, and with infinite caution lest she should wake and he end up being thrown out of that bed by main force, Gilbert attempted to withdraw his arm from around Anne.

At that, she mumbled something incoherent and, shifting languidly, put her own hand on top of his and held it firmly in place – which was, Gilbert repeated to himself in an effort to make his reeling brain assimilate the fact, against the bare skin of her stomach.

Swallowing thickly, he repeated his attempt at retreat.

Anne shifted so that she was now facing him, mumbled incoherently again, frowned funnily, and then, finally, woke up.

For an eternity which lasted some five seconds, she gazed at Gilbert in a dazed, dreamy way, her eyelids moving slowly, heavily up and down, up and down again.

And then her eyes opened wide in sudden realisation, and she moved away abruptly, wrenching herself out of Gilbert’s hold as she sat bolt upright amongst the tousled sheets.

Gilbert sat up as well, raising his palms in a ridiculous gesture of surrender, as he confronted Anne’s bewildered expression and deathly place face.

‘Anne, I swear to you I have no idea how I got under those covers,’ he blurted out hurriedly, desperate to at least let her know that before she kicked him out of the room. ‘I swear it. I am positive I was above them the last time I was awake.’

Anne’s eyes went even wider as he eyebrows shot up.

And then, unexpectedly, she burst out into a small, shy laughter, blushing to the very roots of the tumbling mass of her hair.

Gilbert stared, half-afraid to let down his guard yet.

‘I’m sorry,’ Anne said, quietening down and putting her palms against her flaming cheeks, embarrassment and amusement mingling in her voice. ‘It’s my fault. I mean, it was I who did it. I woke up in the night, and it seemed to me that it was just too awful on my part to force you to sleep without any covers in the middle of winter. So I just put them over you. I’m sorry—I’m sorry if it’s made you uncomfortable—‘

‘No, no, it hasn’t,’ Gilbert put in quickly, and then, feeling his own face heat up, added torturously, ‘I mean, I only thought you might take it the wrong way if you woke up—‘

‘Well, I didn’t,’ Anne asserted – rather untruthfully, considering her panicked reaction of a few minutes previously. ‘I mean, I was kind of surprised. But you,’ she added with a widening smile, ‘you were looking absolutely horrified.’

Gilbert rolled his eyes, but at the same time couldn’t help smiling back.

‘I just didn’t want us to start the day with another silly misunderstanding,’ he said, shrugging.

Anne’s grin faded. ‘No,’ she said slowly, her eyes gazing thoughtfully into his. ‘And I suppose you are justified in thinking I can kick up a row about just about anything.’

‘Well, you know, this isn’t exactly “just anything”,’ Gilbert countered quietly before he could stop himself, and instantly wished the floor would take pity on him and swallow him whole.

At those words, however, Anne effected one of those quick changes of mood which were so characteristic in his experience of her and, her face losing its musing expression and instead assuming an arch, but perfectly matter-of-fact smile, said,

‘No, indeed it wasn’t. I haven’t slept so well in—well, in months, I guess. I feel like this night’s rest is going to last me at least the next few weeks. Afterwards, I suppose I’ll just have to have you in here again to recharge my batteries. Only, perhaps you’d better bring your own blankets then,’ she added with a small, easy laugh.

‘Sure,’ Gilbert said, trying and failing to fall in with her bantering tone. ‘Do you mind if I use the bathroom first?’ he added quickly, rather wishing to get out of sight of Anne sitting all dishevelled and sleep-flushed amongst the sheets and covers he was acutely aware they had been under together mere moments ago, so that he might try and get his brain back to functioning along its normal lines.

‘No problem. The one off the living room is all yours, actually. There’s another one in here, see?’ she pointed to where a door was indeed located in the opposite wall.

‘Oh,’ he said. ‘That’s nice. Fancy.’

‘Yeah, it is rather.’ Anne stifled a small yawn as she stretched herself with a movement which Gilbert found indescribably sensual. ‘After all, this is a marriage suite. That’s what it said on the flat prospectus, I mean.’

‘Oh,’ Gilbert said again, and fled the marriage suite without waiting for any more revelations.

Chapter Text

When Anne emerged into the living room some fifteen minutes later, she found Gilbert busy at the very expensive-looking coffee machine.

‘Make me a double espresso,’ she said in a languid tone, sitting down at the table and propping her chin in her hands.

He looked at her over his shoulder, cocking one eyebrow.

‘I thought you said you’ve had a extraordinarily good night’s sleep?’

Anne rolled her eyes. ‘Did I? Well, I suppose was trying to be nice about it. But the truth is you snort terribly.’

‘Snort?’ Gilbert repeated, turning upon her in offended disbelief. ‘I don’t snort. I’m not fifty, for God’s sake. You, on the other hand, have kicked my shins black and blue. It was like sleeping with a colt.’

Anne went rather pink in the cheeks.

‘Console yourself with the thought you’re never sleeping in the same bed with this colt again,’ she said coldly.

‘Good. Great.’

‘Great.’

There was a moment’s silence as they glared at each other across the room.

It was sliced through with Gilbert’s ringtone.

‘Yes?’ he said, answering the phone and turning his back upon Anne. ‘Yes,’ he said again, and then was silent for a longer moment.

She saw his whole frame go oddly rigid, and an unpleasant chill ran through her.

Slowly, almost involuntarily, she got up from the table and went to stand next to him.

‘Yes. Yes, of course. I see. Thank you,’ Gilbert was saying, his voice mechanically polite. ‘Goodbye.’

He hung up, and stood motionless, his back still towards her.

‘Gil,’ Anne said very softly, touching his elbow. ‘Gil, what’s happened?’

He turned round, and the paleness of his face frightened her.

‘Bash and Mary were involved in a car accident,’ he said quietly, his eyes vacant as he stared back into Anne’s inquiring face. ‘They are being operated on at the moment, both of them. Bash’s condition is critical,’ as he said that, his brow contracted as though in an effort to think clearly. ‘I must—I must go to them—‘

Anne’s fingers tightened on his arm, forcing him to look back at her. ‘Where are they? I mean, in what hospital?’

‘In Charlottetown. It’s a small town near Avonlea.’

‘All right, then it’s no use going in a car. I’ll look up the earliest train, and you pack a few necessary things meanwhile, all right?’

He nodded, and she only then did she let go of his arm.

 

***

 

In ten minutes’ time, Anne emerged from her room with a small travelling bag slung over her arm.

Gilbert, who was just putting on his coat, looked at her in surprise.

‘I’m going with you,’ she said in reply to his unasked question.

‘Oh.’

‘Unless,’ Anne tried hard to sound perfectly neutral, ‘unless you don’t want me to, of course.’

Gilbert blinked rapidly.

‘No. I mean, yes, I do want you to, if you’re sure you want to.’

‘I’m sure,’ Anne said shortly, putting on her shoes. ‘Let’s get on, then. The cab’s waiting.’

 

***

 

Since it was ten o’clock a.m. on a grimy Saturday in late February, the train was almost empty.

They sat in silence, just like they had on that journey back from their weekend at Gilbert’s home last month.

Anne remembered how she had then looked forward to meeting Jerry, just back from a stay to Europe, and how she had also felt extremely uncomfortable in Gilbert’s presence after two days of pretending they were lovers, and couldn’t for the world think of what to say to him.

Now, all she wanted to do was let him know that she was there for him the way he had been for her when he had said he would marry her, and when she’d come home in that awful state after their quarrel about Jerry, and then when, as a result of her idiotic behaviour on that night, she’d miscarried.

But, once again, she simply did not know what to say.

So instead of saying anything, she scooted over closer to where he was sitting with his arms folded over his chest, and slid her hand tentatively into the crook of his elbow.

Gilbert looked down at her with a small start, as though startled out of deep thought.

Anne smiled up at him – a small and forced but, she hoped, encouraging smile.

In response, his own hand came to take hers, and he pulled her closer until her head was resting on his shoulder and their sides were pressed flush against each other, the interlaced fingers of their palms resting on his knee.

They stayed like that for the rest of the journey.

 

***

 

Mary had escaped with ‘only’ a compound fracture of one leg and a concussion assumed to be minor; Sebastian had had a major internal haemorrhage due to a burst spleen, a number of broken ribs, and it was not as yet known whether or not the hit to the powerful skull he had sustained had or had not caused damage to his brain.

Having told Gilbert this, the head of the surgery ward said they had better go home and come back at midday tomorrow, when Mary would, if all went according to expectation, be put out of her medically-induced coma.

As both Mary and Bash were in the intensive care ward where no visitors were allowed, Gilbert agreed to comply with that suggestion, and after a completely silent cab ride, during which Anne again slid her hand into his and held it very tightly, they found themselves in the eerily silent, dark house.

Anne groped along the wall for a light switch. Then she turned to Gilbert, and his harrowed face made her shudder.

‘Come on,’ she said, taking him by the hand and leading the way towards the kitchen.

Gilbert appeared momentarily incapable of action of any kind. Anne practically seated him at the kitchen table, and then took a cursory look at the contents of the fridge. However, the mere thought of eating made her stomach clench, and so she contented herself with making two cups of strong, steaming tea which she then carried to the table, setting one of the in front of Gilbert.

He was sitting in a slouched, motionless position, staring vacantly at nothing.

Anne was planning to take the place opposite, but prompted by a sudden impulse sat down instead on a chair next to him. Then she reached for his hand.

He looked at her, and the pain she saw in those dark, serious eyes she had come to lo—like so much made her scrape her chair even closer, her fingers closing fiercely around his as she rested her cheek against his arm and closed her eyes.

‘I—I don’t know if I can take it,’ Gilbert said jerkily, his voice hollow. ‘I don’t know what I’ll do if Bash—if he dies.’

Anne sat up straight in order to be able to look him in the eyes.

‘He won’t,’ she said, fully realising the pathetic futility of the words. ‘He won’t die, Gil. Bash is strong and young, and he is receiving professional help. He’ll pull through, you’ll see he will.’

Gilbert shook his head, looking away. ‘He’s my only family. He and Mary. I can’t lose them. It would be like losing my parents all over again. I wouldn’t be able to stand it—to be all alone once again.’

‘You won’t have to,’ Anne countered, her voice quiet but determined. ‘Gilbert, they’ll be fine. And I—I know it’s not worth that much, but you’re not alone in this. I’m here, and I’m here to stay. That is, of course,’ she added falteringly, ‘if you want me to.’

He looked at her once again, giving her the ghost of a smile. ‘I do. Thank you.’

Anne attempted to smile back, and then, suddenly feeling shy, let go of his hand and said rather more briskly,

‘That’s what friends are for, isn’t it? And anyway, you’ll thank me after you’ve drunk the tea. Do you want any supper?’

‘No, no,’ he said quickly, reaching for the cup and taking a solid gulp. ‘Mmm, this is nice.’

‘It’s just ordinary tea,’ she said with a small laugh, reaching for her own cup.

‘Well, it’s nice to have a friend who can make such good ordinary tea.’

 

***

 

Anne convinced Gilbert to be the first to go take a shower, and meanwhile did a small reconnaissance of the house and found that there was a room which was evidently something of a guest room, furnished with a double bed and other necessary furniture.

Having then herself washed off the dirt of the long day, she went in search of Gilbert to his room.

She found him lying diagonally across the bed, in a position which looked extremely uncomfortable, his legs stretched out onto the floor and only the upper part of his body supported by the mattress.

But, despite this, he seemed to be asleep, for his eyes were closed and he neither moved nor spoke as she stood for a moment in the doorway, gazing at him and willing him to look up.

With a small sigh, Anne went up to the bed and sat down beside him, her hands busy collecting her damp hair into a loose braid.

Suddenly, she felt a little shiver run down her spine, and, quite automatically, turned her head and met Gilbert’s eyes.

She felt her cheeks heat up under the unsettling intensity of his gaze, but, telling herself not to be absurd, smiled at him matter-of-factly and said,

‘I thought you were asleep.’

‘I’m not,’ he said, unhelpfully.

Anne frowned impatiently and turned her head away from him, her fingers toying with the loose strands of hair at the end of her braid.

‘That bedroom at the end of the corridor is a kind of guest room, isn’t it?’ she asked in a carefully neutral voice. ‘Can I stay there for the night?’

The springboards of the mattress creaked as Gilbert lifted himself up to a sitting position.

He didn’t say anything for some moments, and when Anne could no longer stand the oddly meaningful silence she turned her head to look at him with inquisitively lifted eyebrows.

The sharpness of her glance seemed to start him out of a spell of absent-mindedness.

‘Yeah, sure,’ he said, giving her a quick, crooked smile. ‘But are you certain you’ll be comfortable there? I don’t know what state it’s in, no one has lived there for such a long time.’

‘No, it’s all right,’ Anne said, suppressing a yawn and stretching herself.

She felt a sudden wave of weariness go over her, and quite unthinkingly gave in to the urge to let her aching body fall back onto the mattress, putting her arms under her head for support.

Gilbert looked down at her with a small smirk.

‘Tired already? Weren’t you supposed to stay rested for weeks after last night’s sleep?’

Anne rolled her eyes. ‘Yes, keep rubbing in the nonsense I said at whatever ungodly hour of the morning it was. Besides, it’s just the rural air working on my urban system.’

Gilbert returned to his previous position, lying down beside her.

‘Or maybe it’s the fact that this has been a hell of a day,’ he said, his smile fading. ‘I’m really grateful you’re here with me, you know. It would be terrible to be all alone in this empty house.’

‘I suppose it would,’ said Anne musingly. ‘Especially if one is not used to it. I mean, you’ve never lived here alone, have you?’

‘No. My parents died during my freshman year at college, and I went away on a gap year to work in Europe after that. And then when I came back here, it was with Bash and Mary.’

Gilbert’s tone started out quite unemotional, but as soon as he came to the two names at the end of his utterance there was a small crack in it which caused Anne to sneak her hand into his where it lay on the cover between them and give it a gentle squeeze.

He turned his head to look at her with a rather forced smile. ‘So, as I said, it’s good to have you here.’

Anne, who felt extremely uncomfortable in the position she was in, turned onto her side, pulling her legs, bent at the knee, up onto the mattress.

The intensity of his serious gaze was, at such close quarters, quite unbearably disconcerting, and, flustered, Anne said quickly in an attempt at creating an illusion of ease she was far from feeling,

‘You must be thinking that it’s terribly inconsistent of me to be lying on this bed so unconcernedly right now after I’d made such a fuss about not sleeping on it the last time we were here.’

Did you make a fuss? I don’t remember any such thing. Only an icy, flat “no”.’

Anne gave a deprecating snort.

‘I did it in order to annoy you, I rather think,’ she said, although this was not strictly true. ‘And therefore it was a fussy thing to do. A typically spinsterish thing to do, if you will.’

At that, Gilbert finally did smile, and widely.

‘You’re hardly a spinster,’ he remarked amusedly. ‘Mrs Blythe.’

‘I’m a born spinster,’ Anne went on, aware that she was talking nonsense and also that her eyelids were becoming rather heavy, and that it was rather nice and at the same time frightening how Gilbert’s presence next to her made her own body feel permeated by warmth. ‘You won’t be able to cure my spinsterish bitterness with fifty years of marriage.’

‘Will you let me try?’

Her eyes closed, Anne’s consciousness was by now only one tenth awake, and although her heart gave a wild stutter both Gilbert’s words and the tone in which he’d said them made her feel convinced that she must have made it all up, and presently the oblivion of sleep enveloped her, and she was wondering and blushing no more.

Chapter Text

Anne woke up in the gray light of early Sunday morning to find herself curled up across Gilbert’s bed, a pillow under her head and a blanket wrapped around her body.

It looked like she had kicked him out of his own bed after all.

Shivering a little even in her warm pyjamas, she dragged herself to the bathroom, and then, having found the spare room empty and the bed there evidently not slept in, she flung on a warm sweater, and groped her way down the stairs.

Gilbert was in the kitchen, sitting at the table with a cup of coffee in his hands.

He looked up with a slight smile as she entered.

His face looked haggard, and Anne’s heart gave a flip, which made her unaccountably angry.

‘Where did you sleep?’ she asked sharply by way of hello.

‘On the floor,’ he said, visibly taken aback by her accusatory tones. ‘What’s the matter?’

You tell me,’ Anne snapped, turning her back upon him in search of a cup to make her own coffee. ‘When someone falls asleep on your bed, the right thing to do is to wake them up and throw them out of the room, not encourage them by giving them a blanket and then go to sleep – or rather to spend an awful sleepless night – on the floor.’

Gilbert was silent, and Anne cursed herself silently for a silly, overdramatic goose. She was perfectly aware that she was being utterly absurd, making mountains out of molehills or whatever it was. Again.

She sat down opposite him and for a moment neither said anything. Then, forcing herself to look up at him, she asked in a rather subdued voice,

‘Have you had any news?’

‘No. Not yet. But it’s way too early to expect it anyway.’

‘Yes, I suppose it is.’

This quiet exchanged left them silent again. Anne found herself unable to raise her eyes.

‘I’m sorry for being such a shrew from the very moment I open my eyes,’ she said finally, her gaze fixed on her cup. ‘Really, I’m a hopeless case after all.’

‘A shrew? Like the one in Shakespeare?’

There was a teasing note in Gilbert’s voice, and Anne looked up to see him smirking in a particularly infuriating way.

‘It’s my firm belief Shakespeare never wrote that play at all,’ she said haughtily, and went on with increasing heat, ‘And even if he did, it’s Kate who gets to have the last laugh anyway. She has that pompous clown right where she wants him. Although, of course,’ she added with heavy sarcasm, ‘a man would never see it that way, or allow for any interpretation at all other than that the husband is absolute master and the wife a mere plaything to be ordered around.’

Gilbert’s smirk died down during this unexpected diatribe.

‘Jesus, Anne, I never meant anything like that,’ he said with a small frown as soon as she’d finished. ‘I just—I don’t know, I simply said the first thing that came to my mind related to the word “shrew”. That’s all.’

‘That’s all, to be sure,’ Anne mocked scoffingly. ‘But you will not deny that that is what you think? I mean, that men are destined,’ she spat the word out with venomous emphasis, ‘to be the superiors of women?’

Gilbert’s eyes were by now as wide as saucers, and she could feel her cheeks catch on their customary fire, but held his gaze nonetheless.

‘Are you serious, Anne?’ he asked, sounding genuinely bewildered. ‘Is that the way my character strikes you?’

There was an undercurrent of suppressed hurt in his voice which Anne just managed to catch and which, conscious as she always was of how different Gilbert was from all the boys she’d known before, made her feel positively wretched.

‘It’s not,’ she said, willing the tears she could feel welling up in her throat not to show in her eyes. ‘I don’t, Gil. I’m sorry. I was just being bitter and taking it out on you. You don’t deserve it. I’m sorry.’

His expression softened, although he still looked tense.

‘Don’t be,’ he said, cracking her a small smile. ‘I suppose you’ve only too many reasons to be bitter against the male sex in general.’

‘Yes, but you’re different – you’re good,’ Anne said with what sounded rather incongruously like resentment.

Gilbert smiled again – with his lips only.

‘I don’t suppose it’s too difficult to be a better person than a jerk like that Wright guy,’ he said with a shrug. ‘Or, to take a case closer to home, Royal Gardner. If anyone imagines the whole world’s obliged to do as he pleases, he does. I really hate the bloke.’

Anne’s stomach clenched, and she suddenly could not get any words past the lump in her throat.

‘Anne? What’s the matter? Are you ill?’ Gilbert asked anxiously, getting up and coming over to where she was sitting, his hands hovering uncertainly over her shoulders.

She turned her eyes, unnaturally large and bright, up to his face. He instantly looked even more worried, and that was what caused Anne to come back to her senses.

‘No,’ she said briskly, flashing him a smile and getting quickly to her feet. ‘I just—I don’t know, I suppose I just kind of went into freeze mode. Funny, wasn’t it?’

Gilbert evidently thought it anything but funny, but before he could say so Anne began busying herself about the sink and talking in measured, neutral tones about how Mary would be sure to want them to bring her to hospital some of her personal things, thus giving him no chance of pursuing the subject of just how detestable people like Fred Wright and Royal Gardner could get.

 

***

 

By tacit understanding – or rather by the lack of further argument – the question of anyone using the spare bedroom was dropped, and Anne found herself at once infinitely comforted by Gilbert’s presence on the floor as night after night she went to sleep in his old bed and furious with herself that she should feel this way.

By the end of next week, Mary was moving around in a competent, brisk manner with the aid of a pair crutches while Bash, though unable to leave hospital for some time yet, was conscious and in full possession of his cerebral powers – a state of things which caused Anne to find herself being crushed by a relief-drunk Gilbert in a giant hug and offering up vague prayers of thanks to whatever higher power cared to accept them.

Since the source of the worst anxiety was thus removed and Gilbert could hardly afford to skip classes any longer, late on Sunday evening they found themselves in the train compartment once again, heading back to town.

It was then, as she sat dozing with her head on Gilbert’s shoulder, that Anne got the text.

Feeling her phone buzz in her coat pocket, she took it out vaguely expecting it to be a message from either Jerry or Phil.

It wasn’t.

It was from Diana.

We’ve just landed in Kingsport. Give me your full address and we’ll drop in tomorrow as soon as we can if that’s okay with you. Can’t wait to see you. Hope I didn’t wake you up!

Anne sat staring at the screen, her blood turning cold in her veins and her brain numb.

Gilbert, who was half-asleep as well, must have sensed her sudden rigid immobility, for he sat up a little straighter and, looking at her with a small frown, asked somewhat groggily,

‘What is it? Is something wrong?’

Anne glanced up. As she confronted Gilbert’s sleepy, serious, anxious face her mind made her picture by its side the smug, sleekly handsome face of Fred Wright, and the thought that the two would meet within the next twenty four hours made her feel rather sick.

‘Anne, what is it?’ Gilbert urged, his tones increasingly worried.

Unable to speak, she handed him the phone.

As he read the message, his frown deepened and a shade of anger crept into it.

‘Does “we” mean—‘

‘She and—and Fred,’ Anne finished quietly. ‘I should have known Diana wouldn’t be so easily put off. And he—he—‘ she felt her cheeks burn under Gilbert’s gaze, and put her face in her hands to hide it. ‘Why did he have to come as well? Oh God—‘

‘You’ve mentioned she is pregnant,’ Gilbert said in a subdued, measured tone. ‘I suppose she didn’t want to travel alone in that state.’

Anne, who in her initial wave of dismay had quite forgotten that vital detail, let out a hysterical little laugh.

‘Pregnant – of course!’ she said, looking up abruptly with her face white as a sheet. ‘And he is the father of her baby – my best friend’s baby, Gil.’

As she said that, Anne’s voice cracked a little, and Gilbert’s expression, which had been growing increasingly upset, immediately softened, and, putting his arm around her shoulders and drawing her closer, he said,

‘We’ll face this together somehow. We’ll figure this situation out, however shitty it may seem. Okay?’

Anne let out a long, shuddering breath.

‘Okay,’ she said quietly and then, looking up with a brave attempt at a smile, added, ‘It’s nice to have a friend like you, Gil.’

A shadow crossed Gilbert’s face, but before Anne could fathom its meaning it was gone and, smiling back, he said in mockingly ominous tones,

‘Wouldn’t “partner in crime” describe it better? Remember that’s another pair of people we’ve got to play a married couple to, and it’s starting to seem to me that we might soon be liable for a charge of fraud.’

Anne rolled her eyes, letting out a small chuckle as she did so.

Her heart, meanwhile, was cold with dread.

Chapter Text

Anne spent the majority of the following night wishing she had never made Gilbert move out of his old cramped flat into this ridiculous, expensive, hateful apartment.

She had grown so used to listening to his deep, steady breathing and to the consciousness of his presence near her in the darkness that as she lay in her silent, spacious bed she felt completely hollow and cold, both inside and out.

It was humiliating, but it was true, and there was nothing she could do about it.

There was nothing she could do about anything, Anne thought bitterly. Diana and Fred were going to come visit, and she was going to have to endure his presence and to lie to her face.

And Gilbert was going to be there, watching her do it, and it was going to be absolute hell.

At this point in her cogitations, Anne covered her head with a pillow and groaned with mortification.

 

***

 

When at half-past seven Gilbert knocked at her door Anne was awake, and mainly focused on wishing the world might end before afternoon came.

She tried to tell him to come in, but found that her throat was too dry to speak.

The door opened a crack, and Gilbert’s face appeared in the aperture, looking rather uncertain.

‘Oh,’ he said, stepping fully into the room. ‘You’re not asleep. Good.’

Anne said nothing, merely lay there looking at him and feeling that her life must be a cruel joke.

‘I just—‘ he began, frowning under her silent, impassive gaze. ‘I just wanted to tell you—I mean, to make sure that you’re all right. Because I’ve been thinking about it, and, you know, you don’t have to do it. You don’t have to force yourself to go through this.’

Anne continued to look at him in silence for a few more seconds. Then she pulled herself up into a sitting position, slinging her legs over the side of the bed.

‘It’s rather late in the day for second-guessing, Gilbert,’ she rasped out, running her hands over her face. ‘You know I’ve already told Diana to come.’

‘So what?’ he countered promptly, moving to sit down beside her. ‘Text her and say you can’t meet her because you’re ill and afraid you might give her an infection. It’s that easy.’

Anne looked at him with a half-amused, half-exasperated frown. ‘And since when are you the mastermind of deception in this marriage? Anyway,’ she added with a sigh, looking down at her hands, ‘If I refused to see her, for whatever reason, Diana would be hurt, and I don’t want that.’

‘And I don’t want you to be hurt,’ Gilbert said somewhat curtly.

Anne felt her cheeks get warm.

‘I won’t be,’ she said with an attempt at decisiveness, but without raising her eyes. ‘It’s all in the past. I don’t intend to let Fred imagine that anything he says or does can get to me.’

Gilbert was silent, and when she looked up it was to see him looking so upset she blurted out before she could stop herself,

‘And I don’t want you to let him get to you either. There’s no point. Promise me you won’t let on you know about anything. For Diana’s sake.’

He looked her straight in the eyes. ‘Anne—‘

‘For my sake, then,’ she interrupted, impulsively catching hold of his hand and blushing furiously as she realised what exactly the implication of what she’d said were. Gilbert’s eyebrows shot up, and she added quickly, ‘I mean, you said you don’t want me to be hurt. The only thing about this nasty business that could possibly hurt me would be Diana getting to know the truth. It would ruin her life, Gilbert. And I can’t let that happen. Please.’

His fingers tightened around hers in response. It seemed to Anne her whole body was being shaken by the violent beating of her heart, and she dimly wondered Gilbert didn’t notice.

‘All right,’ he said eventually, his voice low and sending a thrill through Anne’s spine.

A thrill which served to wake her up out of her trance.

‘You couldn’t very well do anything anyway,’ she countered with an unnatural, forced little laugh, releasing her hand from his and putting it up to her tousled hair with a nervous gesture. ‘It’s not like you could challenge him to a duel to avenge my lost virtue, or whatever it is.’

Gilbert blinked rapidly, getting up off the bed.

‘Right. That’s true. So, you are certain you want to go through with this?’

‘Yes,’ said Anne shortly. ‘I am certain.’

He nodded, and walked rather quickly out of the room.

 

***

 

When he got back home in the afternoon, Anne’s anxiety had reached the point where she could not sit still at all, and kept moving around the apartment with abrupt, agitated steps, pointlessly setting straight object which did not require it and fairly stumbling over her own feet.

Gilbert watched her out of the corner of his eyes as he took off his coat and shoes.

‘Don’t look at me like this,’ she said peevishly, catching his glance. ‘You’re making me nervous.’

I’m making you nervous?’

‘Yes. Yes, you are. How do I look?’

She had on the dress she had worn on the day they got married, and suddenly a cold spike of jealousy stabbed at Gilbert’s heart.

‘You know very well you look beautiful,’ he said curtly before he could stop himself. ‘Why ask?’

Anne stopped her pacing and stared at him in surprise mixed with something which looked very much like fear, and he immediately regretted his idiotic outburst.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said quickly, coming over to where she stood and giving her a somewhat crooked smile. ‘I’m sorry. I suppose I’m making myself nervous as well,’ he finished with an attempt at light-heartedness.

She frowned, shaking her head. ‘But you mustn’t – if you lose your nerve, I’ll go to pieces. I mean it. I will. I know I will. Oh my God—’

‘Hey,’ he put in quickly, putting his hand tentatively on her arm. ‘We’ve agreed we’ll make it, right?’

Anne looked back at him with eyes which were quite terrible in their tragic resignation.

‘Right,’ she said hoarsely. ‘Yes. I’m sorry.’

‘Let’s stop being sorry and start being ready,’ Gilbert said with deliberate briskness, cracking her another smile and forcing himself to take his hand away from the fabric of her sleeve. ‘Shall I put on my Sunday best as well, since you’re all dressed up?’

‘Dressed up?’ Anne repeated with a sceptical lift of the brows. ‘Don’t you remember how Phil said this dress makes me look like a nun? It’s as plain as plain can be.’

‘Well, I like it very much,’ Gilbert said against his better judgement. ‘I suppose plain suits you.’

He could have bitten his tongue off, but, unexpectedly, Anne smiled a wide, genuine smile.

‘Thanks awfully,’ she said with a small laugh. ‘I’ll remember that the next time I want to buy myself something actually nice-looking.’

‘I didn’t mean—‘

Anne rolled her eyes. ‘Oh, get a move on already,’ she scoffed, pushing him in the direction of his bedroom and resuming her pacing – although, to Gilbert’s relief, with visibly less agitation.

 

***

 

The moment he emerged from his room, feeling extremely uncomfortable and formal in the clothes he’d put on, the doorbell rang.

Anne went quite ghastly white in the face.

‘I’ll do it,’ Gilbert offered, moving towards the door.

‘No, no, I’ll manage,’ she said breathlessly, tearing herself away from the windowsill against which she’d been leaning and giving him a look which went straight to his heart. ‘Try to smile.’

She took a deep breath and pulled the door open.

A short, black-haired girl dressed in a dark blue coat flung her arms around her.

‘Anne!’

‘Diana—‘

They both sounded tearful.

It was only after a few moments that Gilbert noticed the tall, bulky figure looming in the doorway behind the two girls.

Anne and Diana separated, apparently undecided whether to laugh or cry, squeezing each other’s hands.

‘You’ve given us all such a scare!’ Diana was saying, looking Anne up and down. ‘What on earth did you sneak away like that for?’

‘Exactly,’ put in Fred Wright in a superciliously teasing kind of voice, moving inside the flat. ‘What were you thinking, Anne Shirley? Diana’s nearly made me institute a police search after you.’

Anne froze, and, instinctively, Gilbert moved forward, stepping to her side and taking her by the hand.

By doing so, he attracted Diana and Fred’s attention to his person for the first time, and they both stared at him in quite undisguised surprise.

‘Um, hello,’ he began, deciding to focus solely on Diana as long as possible. ‘I’m Gilbert. It’s nice to meet you.’

Anne gave a slight start by his side, and said in a rather high-pitched kind of voice,

‘Diana— Fred— meet Gilbert. My husband.’

Gilbert’s eyes, almost against his will, strayed to Fred Wright’s face just in time to see a particularly awful kind of smile dawn on his face.

‘Well, I can’t say I’m surprised. You have never been one to waste your time, Anne Shirley.’

Gilbert felt Anne’s fingers clutch convulsively at his hand.

‘You’re actually married? Really and truly?’ Diana asked in a kind of awestruck disbelief.

‘Really and truly,’ Anne replied, smiling stiffly. ‘I know it must seem terribly sudden to you—‘

‘Well, I won’t say it doesn’t,’ Diana interrupted with a small laugh. ‘But then you always said you only believed in love at first sight, and I suppose this must have been it, wasn’t it?’

‘We—‘

‘We fell in love the moment we set eyes on each other,’ Gilbert put in with a wide smile directed at Diana. She definitely seemed to be as good-natured and pure-hearted as Anne had portrayed her, and this increased his hatred of Fred Wright thousandfold. ‘Or rather, I did. Anne needed a bit of convincing, but she decided to risk it, and I couldn’t be more happy.’

‘I’m so glad, Anne,’ Diana said with great sincerity, beaming at her friend. ‘Congratulations to you both, from me and Fred.’

‘Yeah, congrats on snapping up our prize single lady, bud,’ put in Fred with a knowing smirk, actually slapping Gilbert on the arm, which made the latter want to retaliate with a right hook blow. ‘All the guys back home pined after Anne, especially after she’d inherited her fortune.’

‘Don’t be silly, darling—‘ Diana began in an annoyed voice, but Anne interrupted her.

‘Gilbert knew nothing about my financial situation until after we’d married,’ she said calmly, looking Fred straight in the eyes. ‘So, unlike all the guys back home, I felt free to assume he pined after me, not my money.’

‘Certainly,’ Fred replied with a smile which was more like a sneer. ‘I’m not one to say you don’t have charms enough to tempt anybody.’

That Gilbert did not punch him after this comment, which was made in a voice which made his skin crawl and which caused Anne to go rigid all over, was due solely to Diana, who put in in an unselfconsciously bright tone,

‘Stop talking nonsense, Fred, and let’s take our coats off. I’m dying of heat.’

‘Yes, do,’ Anne said, letting go of Gilbert’s hand and giving him a small, rather desperately reassuring smile as she did so.

 

***

 

Dinner passed off relatively easily, considering that out of the four people seated at the table three were hiding what at least two of them considered an awful secret from the fourth.

Still, Anne was wondering more and more at Fred’s attitude. He was behaving as though he didn’t care whether Diana guessed the truth; at times indeed he spoke almost as though he wanted her to guess it.

He was very, very different from the easy-going, handsome, funny boy with whom all the girls back home had been more or less in love and whom Diana, who had the best looks and the nicest character out of them all, got to marry.

As for Diana, the one thing which struck Anne as soon as she’d taken off her coat was that she was not pregnant – at least, it seemed impossible that she should be almost five months pregnant and not show it at all, which she didn’t. And although she seemed her unchanged bright, happy self, there was something unnatural in her manner which troubled Anne, and which made the dinner one drawn-out torture.

Her one relief was that Gilbert was behaving with a composure which helped her keep her own nerves steady, and which caused her heart to beat hard with gratitude. He never spoke to Fred unless spoken to first, but then it was in a perfectly calm, matter-of-fact tone.

‘Anne, this apartment really is too lovely,’ Diana said when they had finished eating, looking round appreciatively.

‘Is it?’ Anne replied somewhat unenthusiastically, remembering her thoughts during the previous night. ‘I don’t know. Perhaps it is.’

‘Won’t you show me the rest of it? We can leave the men to deal with the washing up.’

Fred shot his wife a look Anne disliked very much, and she nearly choked in her attempt to speak before he could raise any objections.

‘Yes. Of course. We’ll only be a moment, all right, Gil?’ she asked quietly, giving the latter a look she hoped was not too obviously anxious.

‘Sure,’ he said with a smile which she could see did not quite reach his eyes.

Anne nodded, and gestured at Diana to follow her into the room she slept in, internally hoping that Gilbert would really start washing up and thus avoid having a tete-a-tete with Fred.

As soon as the door was closed on them, Diana turned on Anne with unexpected fierceness.

‘What on earth do you mean by springing a husband on me just like that?’

‘I’m sorry,’ Anne stuttered out, quite taken aback and also genuinely remorseful. ‘It was really sudden, Diana. I— he— we—‘

At that, Diana stopped frowning and started laughing instead.

‘Oh, stop blabbering,’ she said, pulling Anne into a hug. ‘And tell me whether you’re really happy.’

Anne laughed as well.

‘Much happier than I deserve to be. Gilbert is truly the best person I’ve ever known.’

Diana’s eyebrows shot up. ‘The best person you’ve ever known? Is that why you married him?’

‘Yes,’ said Anne, shortly and truthfully. ‘Does it seem like a bad reason?’

‘It seems like a completely un-Anne-like reason. What I mean is, you are head over heels in love with him, aren’t you?’

‘I do care for him – a lot,’ Anne replied, trying hard not to blush.

Diana looked uncertain, but then her dimpled smiled reappeared once again. ‘Well, at least I’ve not a doubt that he is absolutely crazy for you. I’ve never seen a guy look at a girl the way he looks at you, Anne. I think you’ll be very happy together.’

Anne’s stomach dropped.

‘I—I hope so,’ she stuttered. ‘But, Diana,’ she went on quickly, remembering there were more important things to be discussed than the way Gilbert might or might not be looking at her, ‘what about you? How—I mean, what—‘

‘Oh, don’t bother being tactful,’ Diana interrupted with a bitterness that was very much unlike her. ‘I’ve miscarried. It was soon after you left.’

‘I’m sorry,’ said Anne softly.

Diana shrugged. ‘These things happen.’

There was a moment of awful silence, and then Anne made what was to her a supreme effort.

‘And – and what about Fred?’ she asked carefully. ‘I mean, did he take it hard about—about your pregnancy?’

Diana gave her a rueful smile. ‘Oh, you know what men are. It’s not the same for them.’

‘That’s not true,’ Anne countered decisively. ‘If they’re the right kind, it is. And if anyone deserves the best, you do. You shouldn’t settle for anything less.’

At that, Diana flashed her a sudden angry glance.

‘It’s not that easy, Anne. You should know by now that one has to put up with certain things in marriage.’

‘That’s absurd! Stop talking like you’re sixty, for heaven’s sake.’

‘And you stop talking like you know all about it, when for two months you didn’t even bother to text and ask how I’m doing!’

The door opened, and Fred stood on the threshold, looking annoyed.

‘Come on, Diana,’ he said rather brusquely. ‘It’s late. What,’ he went on with a derisive grin, taking in the girls’ mutually belligerent stance, ‘have the two bosom friends been quarrelling? Impossible!’

Anne opened her mouth to tell him off, but before she could think of words offensive enough Diana turned and went out of the room, and she had no choice but to follow suit.

As she passed him, Fred said in a low, disgustedly confidential kind of voice,

‘I’ve missed you, Anne. You never said a proper goodbye to me, you know. I only hope that goody-two-shoes husband of yours knows how to work you the right way.’

She gave him a square-on stare.

‘You scumbag,’ she said coldly. ‘You’ll pay for all of it yet, I swear you will.’

And without waiting for his response – for she hardly thought she could bear to be in his vicinity any longer – Anne moved rapidly out of the room.

Chapter Text

When the front door closed behind the Wrights, Anne stood still, her hand, very cold, in Gilbert’s, and her brain and body feeling so tired and wretched that even to look at him seemed to her too much of an effort.

‘Hey,’ he said softly.

She shook her head, covering her eyes with her free hand and trying to withdraw the other from his, which, however, only made Gilbert tighten his grasp and then pull her towards him and into a strong, close hug.

Against her better judgement, Anne let out a small sigh of relief as she felt his warmth and the smell of his clothes and skin envelop her.

This is wrong, she told herself firmly. You have no right to be feeling like this.

As soon almost as that thought had flashed through her mind and she felt Gilbert’s hand hover over her hair in an unspeakably tender caress, there was a rapid knock at the door, and then, before she could force herself to tear herself away from Gilbert, there was the creak of hinges, and Jerry’s voice said with jarring loudness,

‘Anne, who was the—Oh, I’m sorry!’

She pulled away from Gilbert, turning round and steadying herself against the chair behind her as she did so.

Jerry was standing in the entrance, looking at once very foolish and extremely amused.

Pardon,’ he said, smirking mischievously in spite of his reddening ears. ‘I did knock, you know.’

‘Don’t be stupid. What is it?’ Anne asked rather curtly, as Gilbert was silent and somehow she felt more incapable than ever of looking at him now.

Jerry stopped smirking.

‘I—I mean, I wanted to ask a favour.’

‘Is that why you have to burst in here in this ridiculous way?’ Anne snapped, frowning at him. ‘Well, come in then. I won’t bite.’

‘Well, it’s technically a favour I have to ask of both of you,’ Jerry went on, closing the door. ‘Since this place, as they always say in les drames policier on the TV, is joint property of spouses—’

‘Jerry, I give you exactly two seconds to stop being a clown—‘

‘All right, all right,’ he said rapidly, putting his hands up in a gesture of surrender. ‘What I mean is, will you put a younger brother up for the night?’

Anne blinked, and then shook herself up.

‘Of course we will, you idiot,’ she said. ‘But,’ she went on, gazing at him suspiciously, ‘if you don’t mind my asking, why? I mean, why can’t you sleep at your own flat? Have you been forgetting to pay rent, or what?’

‘Ah, non. What happened couldn’t be less my fault. There’s been une inondation. Caused by my upstairs neighbours, not me,’ Jerry finished with a look of pointed self-righteousness.

Anne’s eyebrows shot up. ‘All right then,’ she said, shrugging. ‘Make yourself at home, I guess.’

Jerry looked undecided.

You don’t mind, do you?’ he asked, glancing at Gilbert. ‘I would hate to cause any unnecessary tension.’

‘Jerry, I told you not to be a clown,’ Anne said irritatedly before Gilbert could open his mouth. ‘We really had a long day.’

Oui, oui, don’t get angry. Only,’ he added with a widening grin, ‘just asking out of curiosity, do you ever allow him to speak?’

Anne went scarlet and speechless for a moment, which had at least the merit of creating the opportunity for Gilbert to say calmly,

‘I think Anne simply assumes our opinions concur. Which they do. You’re welcome to stay, as far as I’m concerned. And it is true this has not been the easiest day to get through.’

He spoke in such a matter-of-fact tone that Anne decided she was the silliest girl alive, imagining the most impossible things (such as that Gilbert might really feel something towards her) because of completely unimportant things (such as the way he held her and the tenderness with which he had touched her hair). 

Jerry’s eyebrows shot up, and then he burst out laughing.

‘Congratulations, Anne,’ he said. ‘You’ve really found the one.’

Anne, feeling like her cheeks were on fire, gave an exasperated snort, and then, still without sparing Gilbert a look, turned round and marched in the direction of the bathroom.

Let him deal with Jerry if he’s so cool and mighty about it all.

 

***

 

When she came out fourty-five minutes later, wrapped from head to toe in a flannel dressing gown, Jerry was seated at the table eating leftovers from dinner and Gilbert was nowhere in sight.

In reply to the boy’s grin, she rolled her eyes, and went straight to the room occupied by Gilbert. He was not there either, and all was very tidy and with no signs that anyone lived there.

Anne’s intention had been to change the bedclothes, but, to her surprise, she saw that it had already been done.

Mr Perfect was at it again, then. Very well.

She went out of the room and, going up to the table, stood opposite the still munching Jerry.

‘Come on. I’ll show you your room.’

‘Gilbert’s already done that,’ Jerry replied, looking up with a grin.

‘Oh,’ said Anne rather faintly. ‘Good. And where is he now? Did you chase him out?’

Jerry looked extremely amused. ‘I chase him out? After all the things he’s putting up with from you, do you seriously think that possible?’

Anne felt mortified, but looked angry. ‘I mean it. Did he tell you where he’s going?’

Calme toi, little sister. He said he was going out for a run. You know, to relax, get some air, quelque chose comme ca. Not to run away. At least not this time, I think.’

Anne bit back an angry rejoinder, concluding that to be left alone was more desirable than to keep arguing with Jerry. ‘All right, then. I’m going to bed. Are you sure you’ve got all you need?’

‘Sure. Bonne nuit, little sister.’

‘Goodnight, clown.’

 

***

 

When Gilbert came into the room about an hour later, Anne was apparently asleep.

Moving cautiously and silently, he took one pillow off the giant bed and placed in on the floor, together with a spare blanket he had previously taken out of a drawer in his own room. Then he went over to Anne’s side of the bed in order to turn off the lamp she had left on.

As he looked at her face in the shaded light, his heart contracted at how worn-out she looked.

Suddenly, she opened her eyes very wide and stared right at him.

‘Jesus, Anne,’ he said with some annoyance, giving a slight start and then letting out a deep breath. ‘You’ve scared me.’

Anne’s eyebrows shot up. ‘Scared you? You never asked if I was asleep.’

‘Well, you should have said you weren’t right when I came in, and not lie all stiff and still and then look at me like that.’

‘Like what?’

Running his hands over his face with a tired gesture, Gilbert sat down on the edge of the bed.

‘I don’t know. I suppose it’s just that your eyes are really rather big,’ he said with just the ghost of a smile.

‘Well, is that a bad thing?’

‘Or perhaps enormously big would express it better—‘

‘You’re not funny.’

‘As big as millwheels – do you know that fairytale?’

‘Gilbert, you’re not funny,’ Anne said peevishly, sitting up with an impatient movement. ‘Have you caught it from Jerry, or what? All my life it’s been a source of comfort to me to know that at least my eyes are decent-looking, and now you have to make fun of them?’

Gilbert’s smile instantly faded. ‘I’m sorry. I don’t really know why I’m talking like this. Just an attempt to lighten the atmoshpere, I guess. Lame, I admit.’

Anne sighed and was silent, looking down at the sheets and picking at some frayed threads in them in an absent kind of way.

‘Did Fred say anything to you after you were left alone in the kitchen?’ she asked finally, her voice painfully casual.

‘No.’

She looked up, surprised.

‘You said I was not to get into arguments with him,’ Gilbert said, shrugging. ‘And I was sure I would if we started talking. So I simply took Diana’s words literally and started washing up.’

‘And he?’

‘He just sat there, fidgeting, and then got up and went after you.’

Anne was silent again, again looking down and away from his eyes.

‘Did he say anything to you?’ Gilbert asked in a quiet, tense voice.

‘Yes – that he doesn’t like you.’

‘Well, that’s a relief.’

She looked up to see him smile, although his eyes were anxious.

‘You must be wondering what I ever saw in such a rat,’ she said bitterly. ‘Or what Diana did, for that matter. I know I am. But he wasn’t like that then. Or perhaps it’s simply that I was a stupid little girl. I don’t know, honestly.’

Gilbert frowned. ‘I’m not judging you, Anne.’

Sighing, she drew up her knees and rested her forehead against them. She wished she had never been born.

And then she felt it again – the tentative, delicate touch of Gilbert’s fingers stroking her hair as it fell froward along the line of the face.

She turned her head and looked at him. His fingertips hovered over her cheek.

‘The past doesn’t matter,’ he said quietly, his eyes locked into hers. ‘I keep saying it, and know it’s just words, but I swear I’ll do everything to make it come true.’

Later on, Anne could hardly say what it was she had been going to reply. Perhaps she would have told Gilbert she loved him. Perhaps she would have asked him to take her away somewhere so that they could just be together and not have to deal with the mess which seemed to surround them on all sides.

In effect, she had just opened her mouth when there was a very light knock on the door and Jerry’s voice whispered conspirationally into the chink between it and the wall:

Allô? Gilbert?’

Gilbert looked so distracted for a moment that, in spite of eveyrhing, Anne could not suppress a giggle.

‘Go to him, or else he’ll come in here,’ she whispered, giving him a slight push.

He complied, and for a few moments Anne sat listening to the crazy fluttering of her own heart and wondering whether she was glad or mad that Jerry had chosen that very moment to interrupt them.

Presently, Gilbert came back, looking half-annoyed, half-amused.

‘I suppose it is rather late,’ he said, pausing irresolutely at the foot of the bed. ‘And you look tired. Do you want to go to sleep?’

Anne shook her head, and, patting the edge of the bed invitingly, waited for him to come and sit down beside her again.

‘What did that idiot want?’

‘To borrow my keys.’

‘Keys?’

‘Yes. He said he had to go out for a moment.’

‘What? So late?’ Anne asked doubutfully. ‘I hope he’s not going to get himself in touble and call me at three in the morning to come pick him up. I’m all in.’

Gilbert gave her a crooked smile. ‘You must be. Let’s go to sleep. We can talk tomorrow.’

‘No, Gil, wait,’ she said, clutching at his wrist impuslively as he got up. He looked down at her, puzzled, and she went on quickly, moving over to the other side of the bed, ‘I’m not risking Jerry bursting in here in the morning to find you sleeping on the floor. He’d never let us live it down.’

Gilbert looked amused but uncovinced, and, although she was embarrassed almost into a state of idiocy by what she was doing, Anne added with a teasing smile,

‘I promise to keep strictly to this side of the bed and do my best not to kick.’

Gilbert let out an awkward laugh, and, somewhat gingerly, got into the place vacated by Anne.

She lay on her side, watching him as he streched himself out and, putting his arms under his head, turned his head towards her with an inquiringly cocked eyebrow.

‘What is it?’

‘What is what?’ Anne, who momentarily got rather distracted, asked confusedly.

‘Well,’ he enunciated with mockingly exaggerated slowness, ‘it’s pretty obvious that you’ve got something else to tell me, and that you’re not going to sleep until you have.’

‘Oh. Yes.’ She propped herself up again, back on the alert. ‘Gil, I believe – no, I know Diana’s not happy with Fred. She’s not pregnant anymore, either.’

Gilbert sat up as well, a small frown on his face.

‘Yeah, I’ve noticed that,’ he said softly.

‘She said she lost the baby soon after I left,’ Anne went on in measured tones. ‘And from what I understood, Fred didn’t really care. And then she started to justify him, and altogether kept talking as though it was her duty to put up with his shitty behaviour. And she said—‘ she faltered a little, looking away from Gilbert’s face, ‘she said I had no right to talk at her after the way I failed to keep in touch. And she was right, of course.’

‘I suppose she was,’ Gilbert said calmly. ‘I mean, it was hardly a well-thought-out move on your part, we’ve already agreed on that. But,’ he added, and some slight hitch in his voice made Anne look up and into his eyes, ‘however wrong and unfair towards Diana it might have been, I know I’m glad you did it.’

Anne looked back at him silently, her eyes two gleaming pools of gray in the dim lamplight.

‘Very glad,’ he repeated in a voice which at once made Anne’s blood tingle with life and her muscles freeze out of fear of what she might do if she attempted to move at all.

Grasping her hand with a rather desperate decisiveness, Gilbert went on, his eyes anxious but steady on hers,

‘Anne, we really can’t go like this much longer. I need you to know that I—‘

Her phone, lying on the bedside table behind him, gave a penetrating buzz.

Gilbert’s brows contracted, but he seemed resolved to ignore the interruption, and Anne was equally resolved to let him, but at that moment the phone buzzed again, and through the mist in which her mind was enveloped under the magnetic influence of Gilbert’s eyes it occured to her that this might possibly be Diana, and that it was her bloody duty after the way she’d let her down to reply immediately to whather the latter might ask.

This thought must have shown in her face for, letting out an infinitesimal sigh, Gilbert let go of her hand and, without a word, reached for the phone and passed it to her.

Anne’s mind was a blank, and she had to read the message three times over before she could make any sense of it.

It appears we’ve got a common friend staying in town. Or didn’t you know I met Fred Wright on a student exchange in Berne? R.G.

Anyway, I look forward to seeing you again soon, Anne Blythe. Don’t forget to pay my respects to your husband.

‘Anne? What is it? Is it Diana? Is something wrong?’

She looked up, meeting Gilbert’s searching gaze with eyes which suddenly went rather blurry.

‘No,’ she said mechanically, turning the phone off and putting it away with an automatic movement. ‘I mean, yes. It is Diana, but it’s nothing important,’ she amended, barely knowing what she was saying and focusing mainly on not meeting his eyes again. ‘You were right. It is terribly late. We had much better go to sleep right away. Goodnight.’

With which, she slid under the covers, turning her back upon Gilbert and lying as close to the edge of the bed as was possible.

She heard him let out a slow breath behind her, and then he turned off the light and they lay in darkness, both quiet and motionless and waiting for the other to fall asleep first.

In the end, it was Gilbert who did, and as Anne lay listening to his slow, steady breathing, that sound which she had spent the whole of the previous night missing, she had to bite her lips very hard to keep herself from bursting out in tears of the migled anger and despair which pervaded her soul.

Chapter Text

Jerry did not, in fact, call either Anne or Gilbert and demand they come pick him up in the small hours of the morning, but for all that neither of them could be said to have had a good night, although each made a point of not letting the other know it.

After lying awake for what seemed like ages, Anne finally fell into an uneasy sleep, from which she awoke to find the morning sun streaming into the room and Gilbert’s side of the bed empty.

There was also anther message waiting for her on her phone.

Tonight at 7 in the nightclub at Jermyn Street. Me, the unlucky bachelor, and the two happy married couples, the Wrights and the Blythes. Do not try to wrangle out of coming or your little innocent raven-haired friend will regret it. RG

Obeying a sudden impulse and feeling terribly ashamed of it even as she did so, Anne moved her head over onto Gilbert’s pillow, closing her eyes and pressing her face into it.

She had no doubt Gilbert would leave once he learned the truth about the night which had led to her miscarriage, and the thought that soon the smell of his skin would be just a distant memory was enough to make her want to scream.

Scream, however, she could not, at least for the moment. When the worst had come to the worst there would be time enough for that.

For now, she had to get up, get dressed, and behave like the normal, sane person she was very far from feeling.

Because it was obvious now that Roy and Fred had decided to work together to wreck her in Gilbert’s – and everyone else’s – eyes.

And she did not doubt for a moment that they would succeed.

 

***

 

When at two o’clock in the afternoon Jerry emerged from his bedroom, Anne was seated on the couch reading – or rather trying to read – a somewhat second-rate detective novel.

She looked up as she heard the door creak open.

Mon Dieu,’ Jerry squawked, grinning at her. ‘Not in a good mood, are you, little sister? What is it with you girls always going around looking like you’re about to face the guillotine?’

‘Maybe if men weren’t such pigs, women would have a slightly better time of it,’ Anne snapped back, frowning down at her book.

Jerry’s eyebrows shot up. He went and poured himself a glass of water, and then, sitting down next to her, asked in would-be lighthearted tones,

‘Another quarrel with my brother-in-law? Shall I have a little talk de coeur à coeur with him?’

‘Jerry, you’re not funny,’ Anne said, clumping the book shut and crossing her arms over her chest as she gave him a warning look. ‘I’ve told you already Gilbert’s never been anything but good to me. You have no idea how much I’ve got to be grateful to him for.’

Jerry’s eyebrows shot up. ‘Grateful?’ he repeated in mock horror. ‘Poor bloke. No wonder he’s so on edge all the time.’

Anne stared. ‘What are you—‘

‘And what about Diana Barry?’ Jerry went on somewhat less confidently, his eyes focused on the glass he was holding in his hands. ‘What has she got to look so misérable about?’

Anne gave a deprecating snort.

‘Plenty and then some,’ she said darkly, and then went on, incited by Jerry’s lifted eyebrows. ‘Oh, I’m not going to gossip, Jerry. I told you men are pigs. Feel free to draw your own conclusions.’

Jerry’s face went rather rigid. ‘Is—is her husband not treating her well?’ he asked slowly.

‘Jerry, I really can’t—‘

The front door lock turned nosily in its socket, and presently Gilbert appeared on the threshold.

His eye immediately caught Anne’s and he smiled, and she did what she could to smile back convincingly.

‘Hullo,’ he said, closing the door and taking off his coat, and looking from Anne to Jerry with a small frown between his brows. ‘What are you two so serious about? Has something happened?’

‘Anne has made it her mission to undermine my self-respect,’ Jerry replied with a smirk, winking at her. ‘She tells me all men are pigs, and makes an exception only for you, beau-frère.’

‘I forgot how tiresome you could be, with your never-ending babbling,’ Anne said curtly, getting up off the couch and moving towards her bedroom, all the time feeling Gilbert’s inquiring gaze on the back of her head.

 

***

 

She had not long to wait before Gilbert followed her.

From where she was lying on the bed, she watched in silence as he came to sit on the edge it.

His eyes scanned her face anxiously while she looked back with a blank expression.

‘What is it?’ he asked finally. ‘It’s about those texts you got last night, isn’t it?’

‘Yes.’

‘Is Diana—I mean, is she in worse trouble than you thought?’

Anne looked back silently at him for some moments.

‘It wasn’t Diana,’ she said eventually, her tones dull.

Gilbert’s brows contracted in a small frown. ‘Who was it, then? That skunk?’

Anne could help the faint ironic smile which quirked the corners of her mouth upwards at that.

‘Depends on which skunk you mean,’ she replied dryly, pulling herself up into a sitting position by his side. ‘Don’t forget I know quite a few.’

Gilbert, however, refused to be sidetracked.

‘Well? What did he want?’ he asked impatiently, his eyes fixed inexorably on hers. ‘And anyway, why does he think he has the right to disturb you in the middle of the night? Seriously, that guy is just—‘

‘It wasn’t Fred,’ Anne interrupted, suddenly seized by the desire to get this off her chest once and for ever. ‘It was Roy Gardner.’

Gilbert stared at her in astonishment pure and undisguised, and, her throat tight with anxiety, she dropped her gaze to where her hands were folded in her lap.

‘Gardner?’ she heard him repeated, his voice disbelieving. ‘What does he want? Why—why is he even in touch with you at all?’

‘He’s not in touch with me,’ Anne spat out, inordinately irritated by the metaphor, but without lifting her eyes.

‘But he does have your number? And thinks it’s all right to text you anytime?’

She had known it was going to end this way, and yet her nerve still failed her at the accusatory note which she detected in Gilbert’s voice.

And there was worse – oh, so much worse – to come.

She looked up, her eyes bright and wide. Gilbert met her gaze steadily, and the hard, distrustful expression on his face made her heart contract painfully.

‘He’s got my number because – because I asked Phil to give his to me, and—well, that’s nothing to do with what I have to say, and I don’t want to discuss it,’ she stuttered, fully aware how lame and suspicious she was sounding. ‘The point is, he knows Fred. They’ve met before. And—and Fred’s arranged it so that he – Roy – should invite both them and us out tonight.’

‘Why?’ Gilbert asked flatly.

Anne gave an impatient snort.

‘Why, to torture me, enrage you, and make Diana more miserable than she already is,’ she replied with a defeated shrug. ‘Why else? But—but Gil,’ she turned towards him, swallowing hard and reaching out impulsively to touch his hand with a pleading gesture. Then, as she felt his fingers close round hers, she went on rapidly, fervently. ‘I know you hate him, I do too, but we have to go. We—we must think of some way of getting Diana out of the mess she’s in, I know that, but we can’t do anything to let them know we mean to do so. Because then she’d have the hell to suffer. Fred wouldn’t hesitate to make her suffer, or to let Roy do it instead.’

‘So, basically, it’s a question of letting you suffer instead?’ Gilbert asked with some exasperation. ‘In that case—‘

Anne knew what he was going to say, and was suddenly seized by a great fear of hearing it.

‘No, no, of course it’s not,’ she interrupted somewhat feverishly. ‘It’s silly of you to talk of me suffering. Billy has no hold over me, not anymore. Please, Gilbert,’ she went on, tightening her hold on his hand as, quite unconsciously, she leant a little closer towards him. ‘Please, just let’s go there tonight, and I’ll try to get Diana alone and find out what her situation really is, and tomorrow we can begin to think about clearing up this mess somehow. Please.’

Gilbert looked back at her silently for a few seconds, his eyes grave and reluctant.

‘All right,’ he said eventually. ‘But you must know that I—I really hate doing this. I hate putting you in a situation where—‘

‘Well, then I’m all the more grateful that you do agree,’ Anne put in quickly. Pulling her hand away from his, she went on in a somewhat high-pitched voice, ‘Really, Gil, I hope you know just how grateful I am to you for all that you’re doing for me, and that I realise just how much I owe you—‘

To her surprise, Gilbert cut her effusions short with a forced, dry laugh.

‘How much you owe me?’ he repeated, his voice oddly hollow. Then he got up and added without looking round at her, ‘You don’t owe me anything, Anne. And I wish to God there never was anything for you to feel grateful to me about.’

And, before Anne could gather her wits together and stammer out a reply, he went out of the room.

Chapter Text

Anne hardly knew what she expected the meeting to be like.

Her one ardent desire was that Gilbert could simply resolve to make himself deaf to any offensive statements Fred – and Roy – might be going to direct against her, but something in the way he spoke before leaving the bedroom made her frustratingly afraid of giving him advice to that effect.

Indeed, the chilly, impersonal politeness with which he behaved as they went out into the evening street and entered the waiting taxicab made her fairly incapable of addressing him at all, and the way to the designated spot passed in oppressive silence.

As they passed the threshold of the dimly lit club she tripped over it in her miserable absorption, and Gilbert reached out instinctively to steady her as she swore at herself under her breath.

Anne looked up into his eyes. As she felt the pressure of his fingers round her arm, drawing her closer against his side, a wave of terrible longing rolled over her, and it must have shown in her face, for his own tense expression softened, and, giving her a lopsided smile, he said teasingly,

‘Trying to get yourself a sprained ankle and wiggle out of it at the last minute, are you?’

She smiled back, rolling her eyes.

‘I actually might have, but for your incurable chivalry. And then we’d both be spared it.’

She felt Gilbert let go of her arm and her heart instantly sunk, but then his fingers wrapped themselves round hers instead, enclosing her hand in a tight, warm clasp, and it was as though she could breathe normally again after having held her breath for the last few hours.

He was still smiling, but his eyes were serious.

‘Well, let’s hope we can actually try to make some good come out of this by helping Diana,’ he said. ‘I really, really hate the thought of leaving her at the mercy of that squid. She must be made to see reason.’

Anne nodded, frowning. ‘Tell me about it. I feel like I—‘

Like I have no right to be happy and safe with you when she’s in such a lousy situation instead, she was going to blurt out, but stopped herself in time.

‘Like you what?’ Gilbert prompted, frowning a little.

‘Hmm?’ Anne asked in a disingenuously vague voice, looking away from his searching eyes. ‘I don’t know. I forget what I was going to say.’ She sighed, looking back at him. ‘I just want it to be over. Don’t let’s dawdle. The sooner we go in there, the sooner we’ll come out again.’

Gilbert nodded and, to Anne’s infinite comfort retaining his hold of her hand, led her on into the main room of the club.

 

***

 

Nor did he let go of her hand for longer than was inevitable throughout the whole of the forty-minute ordeal that was their sitting at the smallish round table with Diana on Gilbert’s left, Roy on Anne’s right, and Fred opposite them, alternately scowling at anything either Anne, Gilbert, or Diana said and grinning at Gardner’s vaguely obscene jokes and allusions.

Every time Roy addressed her Anne almost unwillingly scooted a little closer to Gilbert, her hand fairly clutching at his under the table; but the mere fact that he was there beside her, and that she could seek comfort in his nearness and the warmth of his skin, was enough to make up for the way Fred’s barely disguised hostility and Roy’s sleek insolence made her spine crawl every time either of them spoke.

It really seemed that the objective of the whole farce was, as Anne had foretold, to make the three of them as uncomfortable as was possible. And she felt acutely for Diana, realising how terrible it was for her to have no warm, secure hand to hold on to.

Finally, Anne could stand the sight of her friend’s pale, strained face no longer and, giving Gilbert’s hand a small cautionary squeeze and then letting go of it, she got up and said casually,

‘Di, come and let’s look for the toilets. I have a feeling that my nose must have gone all shiny, and I can’t stand it when those freckles show through.’

She stood by while Diana, somewhat gingerly, got up from her chair.

‘Don’t trouble yourself, Anne,’ said Fred with a jeer. ‘It’s true they look like some kind of obnoxious rash, but everyone at this table has already seen you without any make-up at all anyway. We all realise the full extent of the curse, don’t we, Blythe?’

Anne whisked Diana off without waiting to hear Gilbert’s reply.

 

***

 

‘All right,’ she said, as soon as the door of the women’s washroom were closed on them. ‘This is it. I’m done pretending I don’t see how he’s treating you. Diana—‘

‘Anne, don’t,’ the other girl interrupted quickly, frowning as she turned irritably away from her friend’s insistently inquiring eyes. ‘It’s no use our quarrelling about this again.’

‘It is if I can find a way to make you see reason,’ Anne replied, undaunted. ‘Diana, I was going to try and find out about how—how things really are between you and Fred, but after what I’ve seen in the last forty minutes—‘ she broke off and, putting her hand on her friend’s arm, forced her to look her in the face. ‘Diana, that bastard is downright disrespectful towards you. And we both know he is an unprincipled brute into the bargain.’

‘Anne, for God’s sake—‘

‘No, listen,’ Anne went on, her voice incisive. ‘I know he used to have his charm. I know it was easy to fall for it. But it was never more than skin-deep, and I don’t believe you can possibly fail to realise that. Tell me the truth, Diana. Do you still love him, in spite of—of everything?’

Diana’s face twitched nervously. She looked back at Anne silently for a moment, and then, her defences suddenly breaking down, said with a quiet, convulsive sob,

‘No—no, I don’t. I hate him. I hate him so much, Anne. And I despise myself so horribly because of that.’

‘Oh, Di—‘ Anne pulled the other girl into a close, tight hug, running her hand reassuringly up and down her back. ‘Don’t talk like that. None of this is your fault. He’s the one who’s fucked it up. You’re not the least little bit to blame.’

‘I am, I am,’ sobbed Diana helplessly. ‘I—if I had been good enough for him, he would not—‘ she stopped, chocking back a sob.

‘Cheat on you?’ supplanted Anne in a tone which caused Diana to hold herself off and look at her in startled embarrassment. ‘Diana, he’s not worth your tears and your remorse. And deep down you know it. Please, please let me—let us help you. Don’t go back with him tonight. Come to our place. You never have to spend two seconds alone in his company again. We’ll get you out of this, I promise we will.’

Before Diana could answer, there was a knock at the door, and Roy’s voice, impatient beneath the veneer of good-humouredness, called out,

‘Are you girls in there? Is everything okay? You’ve been gone for ages.’

Anne gritted her teeth and, seizing Diana’s hand in a reassuring grasp, led the way into the narrow corridor outside.

‘Well, well!’ Roy said superciliously, his eyebrows going up at the sight of Diana’s tear-stained face. ‘Your husband’s been wondering what’s become of you, Mrs Wright.’

‘Diana, remember you don’t have to go back with him,’ Anne put in quickly, seeing a shadow of indecisiveness cross Diana’s face. ‘I meant every word I said.’

‘What is this I’m hearing?’ Roy queried ominously, fixing a penetrating stare on Anne’s pale but defiant face. ‘Breeding rebellion, are you, Mrs Blythe?’

‘It’s none of your business,’ she spat out.

Roy’s face darkened.

‘I said, Mrs Wright’s husband is looking for her,’ he said, his eyes never leaving Anne’s. ‘Will you let her go, or is she to stay and witness the little talk I want to have with you?’

 ‘I have nothing to talk to you about,’ Anne countered, somehow managing to keep her voice steady. ‘Come on, Di.’

‘Nothing? And no secrets from your lovely friend either, I presume?’ Roy sneered.

Anne’s heart dropped.

‘Diana, go and tell Gilbert I’ll be with you in a minute. And tell him—tell him you agree. Please,’ she added with a last desperate effort at convincing the girl to refuse to go back home with Fred.

Diana opened her mouth, closed them again, took a deep breath, and then said,

‘All right.’

Anne gave her a reassuring smile, and as she watched her go out of the corridor and back into the main room she uttered an internal prayer that her resolve may withstand the test of Fred’s only too certain opposition and bullying.

‘Still afraid to own up to being a slut, are you?’

Anne whipped round, her blood pumping loudly in her ears.

‘What do you want from me?’

A slow, ferocious smile spread over Roy’s face.

‘What you’ve failed to give me last time we met,’ he replied brazenly. ‘And what you were not at all so very reluctant to offer Wright and countless other blokes as well, I’ve no doubt. So, I don’t see why I should be the only exception.’

You—‘

‘Because I suppose your pitiful husband gets his share of the goods all right, doesn’t he? Is that what’s he married you for? To make sure you reserve your sweet little cunt for his use only? Doesn’t he know better than to trust a practiced slut?’

Before Anne could even find her voice, quick footsteps approached from behind her, and the next thing she knew was that there was the dull sound of bone meeting bone in a fierce punch, and Roy was sent staggering into the wall behind him while Gilbert stood between her and him, breathing hard and raising his fist to deliver another blow.

Then, and only then, did she come to her senses.

‘Don’t!’ she cried, catching hold of his arm and desperately trying to pull it down. ‘Gilbert, don’t! You’ll get yourself in trouble, and for what?’

‘Yeah, for what?’ repeated Roy with a vicious sneer from where he stood glowering at Gilbert and nursing his jaw. ‘For the sake of a dirty little piece of used goods? Really, mate, I thought you knew better than to go around with a bitch who can’t keep herself from opening her legs to every man she meets on the street.’

‘You—‘ Gilbert hissed, his hand going up to wrap itself around Roy’s throat before Anne could try to stop him. ‘You fucking bastard—‘

‘Tell him, Anne!’ Roy yelped, barely able to breathe but without losing his malicious smirk. ‘Or does he know already how you came to me begging to be fucked after he’d thrown you over?’

‘What is going on? What are you guys doing? Oh my God, are you crazy? Anne, what is going on?

Diana was by Anne’s side, with Fred following close behind.

‘Hold on, Gardner, I’m calling the police,’ he said with a repellent little chuckle. ‘We’ll see how much the Good Doctor will enjoy being put in jail for a day or two. And who’s going to take care of his little prize slut then, I wonder?’

Diana gasped audibly, looking at her husband with wide, incredulous eyes.

Gilbert, meanwhile, let go of Roy’s throat, and the latter, though sputtering and barely catching his breath, said with a meaningful grin at Fred,

‘Well, as I’ve told her, the bitch owes me a fuck, so I won’t mind taking what’s mine while her keeper’s away. Can you imagine that she came to me of her own free will, practically crawled into my bed, and then decided she’d like to change her mind after all? Oh, pardon, you didn’t know, did you, Blythe?’

Gilbert, shaking all over, was prevented from throwing himself at Roy once again by the concerted effort of Anne and Diana.

‘Gilbert, don’t,’ Anne begged through the tears which were by now choking her as well.

He turned a white, rage-filled face upon her, and she nearly cried out in the pain that went through her at the sight of the hatred in his eyes, but managed to control herself somehow.

‘Let’s just go,’ she pleaded desperately. ‘Let’s get Diana out of here.’

‘Hey! She’s not going anywhere!’ Fred objected sullenly, standing up a little straighter.

‘Yes! Yes, I am!’ Diana asserted in a surprisingly firm voice, giving him a scorching look. ‘You can go to hell, Fred. God knows you’ve put me through enough of it in the past few months.’

‘You filthy little—‘

‘Let’s go, Gil,’ Anne begged again, tugging at his rigid hand. ‘Please. We owe it to Diana to get her out of here. Now.’

Without sparing her another look, he nodded, swallowing hard as his eyes still bore into Roy’s mocking face.

So, putting an arm round Diana and making sure, out of the corner of her eye, that Gilbert did not fail to follow close behind, Anne led the way out of the corridor, past the fuming Fred and followed by Roy’s quiet, derisive laughter.

Chapter Text

Anne half expected Fred to follow them, stalking after them in true villain style and loudly demanding they return him his lawfully wed wife.

As they emerged into the damp, streetlight-filled night outside she held tight onto Diana, whether to comfort her or feel comforted herself she hardly knew.

‘Get a taxi, Gilbert,’ she said, addressing his sleeve, which she could see right behind her.

He complied, and in no time they were inside, Gilbert in the front seat and Anne and Diana still huddled close to each other in the back.

Diana was crying in a quiet, mournful kind of way, while Anne, her whole body shivering and her teeth chattering, was concentrating on trying to calm herself enough for them to stop before they got back home.

She more or less succeeded; at least, she observed as she stood in the corner of the elevator with her gaze fixed on the empty square of floor between her own, Diana’s, and Gilbert’s shoes, it was only her hands which were shaking now, and that she could easily hide.

They opened the front door, and were confronted by Jerry, whose surprised lift of the eyebrows turned into a flabbergasted stare in the space of a millisecond.

Mon Dieu!’ he exclaimed, getting up from the couch and gazing from one to the other of them with eyes fairly starting out of his head. ‘What’s happened to you?’

‘Jerry, can you please leave us alone?’ Anne asked, and something in her voice must have impressed him with the seriousness of the situation, for he merely nodded and, with one more somewhat frightened look in Diana’s direction, removed himself to his bedroom.

‘I—I didn’t know you had a guest,’ stammered Diana, sounding a little resentful. ‘I’m sorry to be causing trouble—‘

‘No trouble at all,’ Anne said quickly, feeling, as she hung up her own coat and helped Diana off with hers, as though she was watching her own movements from a detached spot outside her briskly moving body. ‘Perhaps—perhaps you’d like a bath now, and I’ll make you something warm to eat meanwhile?’

‘No, no food,’ Diana answered with a shudder. ‘I couldn’t swallow a bite. But a bath would be nice.’

Anne nodded, secretly relieved to be released from the ordeal of trying to cook anything with hands which were still terribly unsteady. ‘All right. You’ll find towels and clean pyjamas in the closet.’

Diana nodded, and, with one last sniff, disappeared into the bathroom.

 

***

 

Every nerve in Anne’s body was acutely aware of Gilbert’s silent, immobile presence in the periphery of her circle of vision.

Very slowly, she turned round and, by an enormous effort of will, raised her eyes to his.

He looked back at her blankly, unflinchingly.

‘I—‘ Anne began and, her voice immediately breaking, cleared her throat and tried again. ‘I suppose it’ll be best if—if Diana and me sleep in the bigger room. I don’t want to leave her alone. If you won’t mind sleeping on— the couch—‘

Her voice broke again, and her nerve, this time, went too.

Wincing at her own weakness, she looked away from his immovable face, and covered her eyes with one trembling hand, blindly groping with the other one for the support of the windowsill right behind her.

You knew this was coming, she told herself, trying to suppress her urge to break down into a helpless heap on the floor. You knew he would end up despising you. Feeling repulsed by you. You knew it.

Still, it hurt like hell.

A hand touched her on the shoulder, and she held her breath, afraid to move an inch lest the warm pressure should disappear.

‘Anne—‘

‘It’s fine,’ she said, her voice practically a screech. ‘I just need a minute. I didn’t expect to— I— I should have known—‘

‘Jesus, Anne,’ Gilbert breathed, his arms coming up to wrap themselves round her in a gentle, tentative way. ‘Anne,’ he repeated, pulling her closer as he felt her relax, indeed practically droop against him. ‘Anne. Anne—‘

‘I can’t talk—now—‘ she said, her voice muffled against his shirt. ‘I need to—to keep myself together— for Diana.’

In response, Gilbert held her even closer, and Anne gave herself up to the relief of it for a few more moments, feeling her body gradually stop trembling.

‘I’m really fine—now,’ she said, forcing herself to pull away and looking up at him with very wide, apologetic eyes. ‘Gilbert, I know I should have told you it was him I went to – to – see – that night but—but I knew how much you disliked him, and—‘

A small spasm of anger contorted his face, but he quickly suppressed it and gave her a small, determined smile, albeit one which didn’t reach his eyes. ‘It doesn’t matter anymore, Anne. I only wish you’d at least let me knock his teeth in.’

‘Don’t be stupid,’ Anne countered impatiently. ‘Fred might really have called the police, and it might have seriously harmed your prospects, and do you think I would have enjoyed being responsible for that? Anyway, is your hand quite all right?’ she added, reaching out for his right wrist and pulling his hand up to examine it.

His knuckles were bruised.

‘See?’ she demanded, running her thumb over them in a light caress. ‘You might have cracked some of your own bones – and in your right hand, too. The chief tool of your future trade. And for what?’

She looked up at him with a reprimanding frown, and was met by a very serious, and at the same time curiously soft expression which caused her stomach to do a funny flip.

‘For something far more precious,’ Gilbert replied quietly, his other hand coming up to fold itself round hers.

Anne shook her head mutely, but was unable to tear her eyes away from his.

The bathroom door creaked open.

Gilbert let go of her hands and moved away towards the kitchen, while Anne sunk back against the windowsill and did her best to smile encouragingly at Diana.

‘Come on,’ she said, pulling herself together and, out of the corner of her eye, catching sight of Gilbert’s back as he stood looking out of the kitchen window into the darkness outside, his hands in his pockets. ‘I’ll show you the room.’

 

***

 

‘Won’t Gilbert mind being kicked out of here?’ Diana asked with evident concern, eyeing the giant marital bed.

‘No,’ Anne said shortly as she put the finishing touches to the sheets she was changing. ‘He’ll be happy to finally get a good night’s sleep, uninterrupted by my tossing and kicking.’

Diana giggled, albeit rather weakly. Anne gave her another reassuring smile, and, gathering up her pyjamas, went into the bathroom which adjoined the room and took a quick shower.

When she came back, Diana was crying.

‘Oh, Di,’ she said, rushing to sit down by her side and putting a reassuring arm round her shoulders. ‘Darling Di, please don’t cry. You’ll see that everything will sort itself out. Or rather, we’ll make it sort itself out. I promise. You won’t have to fight this battle on your own, not anymore.’

‘I know,’ Diana sobbed, shaking her head. ‘And I’m glad you’ve convinced me to come here. I’m not crying about Fred.’

‘No?’ asked Anne, bewildered.

‘No. I’m crying because I’m jealous of you, Anne. I know it’s awful of me, but I am.’

‘Jealous of me?’ Anne, in whose ears Roy’s vulgar words still resonated loudly, repeated in incredulous tones. ‘Why?’

‘Because—because Gilbert was ready to kill that man – Roy – when he spoke about you in that awful way. I never saw anyone look so—so terribly angry before. I wished someone loved me as much as that.’

Anne could only stare.

‘Diana, this is an extremely silly thing to say, and you know it,’ she said eventually, her voice strained. ‘Gilbert has been on bad terms with Roy Gardner for a long time now, and while it is of course nonsense to talk about his killing anybody, if he had got himself in trouble today it would have been entirely my fault. I – my own stupidity – could have been be the cause of ruining the life of another person. How is this something to be jealous of?’

‘It is,’ said Diana obstinately. ‘It shows he puts you first. And that he’d rather suffer himself than let people offend you.’

‘It shows he doesn’t know any better than to let an idiot taunt him into a fight,’ Anne replied dryly. ‘Besides,’ she added, steeling herself for the confession which must follow, ‘you should know that—that all he – Roy – said was true.’

Diana’s eyes went very wide. Anne felt her cheeks burn. The patent incredulity in her friend’s stare was almost too painful to bear.

‘Wha—what?’ Diana managed finally. ‘You mean, you’ve cheated – had meant to cheat – on Gilbert after you were married? With Roy? Why on earth would you do that?’

Anne put her face in her hands and drew in a deep breath, which did very little to steady her nerves. However, she knew she had to tell the humiliating truth – humiliating for herself and, what was far worse, probably destined to compromise Gilbert in her friend’s eyes.

‘I haven’t been completely honest with you about my marriage to Gilbert, Diana,’ she said dully. ‘I—we—He married me because—because I asked him to.’

Diana’s eyebrows shot up.

‘Well? What’s so odd about that?’ she prompted, as Anne seemed momentarily unable to go on. ‘It’s exactly like you to propose to a guy, and when it’s a guy like that no one can blame you for wanting to snatch him up,’ she added with a spark of mischief in her eyes.

Anne felt even worse.

‘No, it wasn’t like that,’ she said miserably, shaking her head. ‘I—I practically bribed him to do it, Diana. A common friend told me he needed money badly – and I—I accosted him in a shopping centre and put it before him as a business proposition.’ She hid her face in her hands again, shame burning deep through her as she recalled that fateful afternoon. ‘Doesn’t sound terribly like something to be jealous of, does it?’

‘But—but why? Why would you do something like that?’ Diana asked after a moment of strained silence. ‘And—and does it mean you don’t really love him?’

Anne hardly knew which of these two questions she hated hearing more. The fact was that neither could be answered truthfully.

‘It doesn’t matter if I do or don’t,’ she said, hating herself for the equivocation. ‘That’s not the point. I tell you it was only a business deal from the beginning.’

‘But—but—‘ Diana stuttered, her bewilderment evidently increasing rather than diminishing. ‘I know I don’t know him all that well, in fact almost at all, but it sounds so very unlike him somehow to agree to something like this. He – he doesn’t seem the mercenary type.’

‘He isn’t,’ Anne said, with more feeling that she’d as yet shown. ‘He truly isn’t, Diana. Please, please don’t think any the worse of him because of what I’ve told you. The truth is, he didn’t want to accept the money, only I bullied him into taking it.’

‘But why? If he loves you?’

The innocent naivety of the query made Anne let out a rather nasty, shrill laugh.

‘Stop saying that,’ she said, her voice harsher than she’d meant it to be. ‘It’s not—it can’t be true. Besides, no sum of money could possibly repay him for what’s he’s done for me. There’s—there’s things that I’ve done that make me shudder with disgust when I think about them – and he knows all about them, and still he’s never turned away from me.’

It possible, Diana looked even more bewildered.

‘And you still persist in thinking he doesn’t love you?’

‘That’s because it’s true!’ Anne cried, getting off the bed with a restless movement and wringing her hands. ‘Please, let’s not talk about this anymore.’

Diana was silent, and there was a look in her eyes which made Anne say peevishly,

‘I suppose you think I’m very callous.’

‘No,’ said Diana, shrugging. ‘I think you’re very, very stubborn, and very wrong.’

Anne shook her head and, crossing over to the other side of the bed, said dully,

‘Let’s just go to sleep. Tomorrow can’t possibly be worse than today, so that’s something to look forward to.’

She turned off the light, and, not too long afterwards, heard Diana’s breath get even and deep.

For herself, however, she felt so extremely wide awake and so restless that even lying reasonably still was torture.

She noticed how very silent the flat was. Had both Jerry and Gilbert gone to sleep already as well?

Or, her feverish mind whispered, perhaps Gilbert was not there at all?

Perhaps he’d gone out on one of those runs of his – and in the course of it he might, by cruel chance, come across Roy – only the two of them, in some pitch dark back alley – and then in the morning an ambulance arriving to collect one and a police van the other of them – or perhaps – perhaps he might even have gone seek Roy out on purpose –

she knew Gilbert well enough by now to know that to her face he would act calm and tell her it didn’t matter and even joke about it to set her worries at rest, but all the time there would be that suppressed anger, that murderous glance even Diana had noticed—

Gilbert knew Roy had treated her roughly, had caused the injuries which had resulted in her miscarriage— the offensive taunts Roy had levelled at her tonight were mere childishness compared to the fact that he had used physical violence against her, and Gilbert knew this, and would not simply leave it be, she knew he would not— because he was stupid and obstinate and bloody chivalrous like that—

And she would be damned if she was going to let him play at being some damned knight errant and get himself into trouble—

Cautiously, not to awaken Diana, Anne threw off her blankets and tiptoed gropingly out of the room.

Chapter Text

Anne’s worst fears were confirmed. The lights were all turned off, and the couch, on which Gilbert’s pillow and a spare blanket were lying, was empty.

Without turning the lights on, she curled up on it, her eyes wide open and fixed in the direction of the front door.

 

***

 

He came in about half an hour later.

He switched a small side lamp on, and then started nervously as his eyes caught Anne’s.

She sat up and watched him take off his outdoor things. Then, he slowly came up to the couch and sat down beside her, giving her a small, somewhat self-conscious smile.

Anne had originally meant to confront him with calm, cold expostulations. To make him see how it was purely for reasons of objectively understood safety that he ought to have stayed put.

However, she had spent the past half-hour getting more and more worked up at a rapidly increasing pace, and now, cracking up completely, she flung her arms around his neck and let out a deep, shuddering sigh of relief as she breathed in the scent of his skin.

Gilbert was too much taken aback to react at once, but presently his arm encircled her waist and he drew her closer, his other hand coming up to her hair to stroke it in a tender, reassuring way.

‘Hey,’ he said softly, his voice a mixture of confusion and anxiety. Anne felt his lips brush against her temple in a feather-light, tentative kiss which made her shiver involuntarily. ‘It’s all right. Everything’s going to be all right.’

‘You shouldn’t have gone out tonight,’ she said with quiet reproof, her cheek pressed against his shoulder. ‘I was so afraid. Thank God you’re back safely.’

‘But, Anne— You know I’ve been going out for a run late in the evening since forever—‘

‘I don’t care,’ she cut in, breaking away from him and brushing off a few stray tears with a quick, frustrated motion. Gilbert’s eyes widened in surprise at the sudden harshness of her tone. ‘The only thing I do know is that you might as well be lying dead in some deserted back street by now—‘

What?’ he asked with an incredulous half-laugh. ‘Anne, don’t be unreasonable. I can take care of myself. Nothing’s ever happened to me.’

‘Great. Congratulations,’ she snapped, fully aware that she was overreacting but unable to bite the words back. ‘Still, could you put that habit on hiatus while—while I’m here, so that my imagination may stop torturing me? I know it’s a selfish thing to ask, but I do ask it. You’ll be free to resume as soon as—as I’m no longer here to worry.’

The look which came into Gilbert’s face at those words made her look away, her heart beating furiously fast in her chest.

‘All right,’ was all he said, in no particular tone at all.

Anne looked back at him, and he returned the gaze unflinchingly.

‘Good,’ she said quietly. ‘Thanks.’

A quick, sour smile crossed his face. Then he got up.

‘You’re welcome,’ he said, his back turned towards her. ‘If that’s all, I’m gonna go shower. Goodnight.’

‘Night.’

She watched him head for and disappeared behind the bathroom door.

 

***

 

Well! It was just as well to let him know she realised there would no longer be any reason for them to pretend they were together once Diana was set free from her marriage to Fred. She would no longer have any legitimate claim on Gilbert’s time and space and care.

She ought to have told him she’d already confessed to Diana their marriage was nothing but a business deal. It was only fair he should no longer be forced to playact in front of someone who was staying in the same house with them.

Bitterness and anger at she scarcely knew what – herself, Gilbert, the world in general, the fact that they hadn’t met in a different, better time and place – filled Anne’s heart as she kept her station on the couch, her eyes fixed on the bathroom door.

 

***

 

To her exasperated embarrassment, when he did come out, he was dressed in only his pyjama pants, his moist bare chest glistening in the half-light of the room.

She looked rapidly away from him and down at her hands.

Her face felt uncomfortably hot. As a matter of fact, so did her entire body. Hot and uncomfortable.

The silence of the room was overwhelming. Then she heard his steps, and presently he sat down beside her once again.

God, did he smell good.

What the hell, Anne? Her brain demanded with mingled irritation and contempt. Get a hold on yourself. Make him understand you have no intention of inflicting your company upon him any longer than will be absolutely necessary.

‘I want you to know I have no intention of inflicting my company upon you any longer than will be absolutely necessary,’ she blurted out, her eyes still fixed on her lap. ‘I mean, now that Diana is leaving Fred anyway there is no reason for me—for us to pretend anymore. As a matter of fact, I’ve told Diana the truth about us tonight, so you don’t have to act like you—like you—,’ she stopped, absolutely terrified with where this sentence was going, and gasped out instead, ‘I mean, we don’t have to act like married people in front of her anymore.’

This blabbering recital was met by silence, forcing Anne to muster up the courage to look up.

Gilbert was sitting with his elbows resting on his knees, staring at the floor, his back hunched up. However, when he felt her gaze on himself he sat up and met her eyes. There was a terrible, mocking kind of smile on his face.

‘I bet it didn’t improve her opinion of me to hear I could be bought with hard cash, did it?’

Anne’s lip trembled, and she bit it hard and looked away.

‘I told her it wasn’t like that at all,’ she said quietly. ‘I told her you did it because you—you wanted to help me, first of all. And that it was me who insisted you accept the payment. So that we might be fair and square.’

Gilbert laughed bitterly at that, and with a small shudder at the sound of that laughter Anne forced herself to turn towards him once again.

‘Fair and square?’ he repeated, his voice strained and his face suddenly serious. ‘All right then, let us be fair for once and talk to each other honestly. Just now, you were going to say – no, don’t bother to deny it – that I needn’t pretend I care about you. But that was never pretence – and you know it, Anne.’

‘I—I—‘ she faltered, unwittingly leaning a little away from him. His half-naked proximity, the way he was looking at her, the dark, quiet house around them – all seemed to be clouding up her thoughts in the most terrible way, until the only thing she could think was, Just tell him you love him, and let him decide what to do with that fact. ‘I know you’ve been a true friend to me since the very beginning, and that you are a genuinely good person, and I’m very, very grateful to you—‘

‘For God’s sake, Anne!’ he exploded, turning towards her with a movement so abrupt she lost her thread completely and was reduced to staring back at him in mute, frightened confusion. Then he reached up and took her face between his hands, making her breath hitch at their sudden closeness. ‘Let me make this clear. I don’t want you to be grateful to me. I don’t want you to keep saying I’m a good person. I’m not.’

‘But, Gil,’ she put in, her voice hoarse and small. ‘You truly are the best, most decent guy—‘

He crashed his lips against hers, pushing her back onto the couch. He kissed her roughly, hungrily, making her let out a small whimper when he pried her mouth open with his tongue and deepened the caress.

After a moment’s astonishment, pushing all second-guessing to the side, Anne gave in to the exciting, overwhelming warmth which spread all over her body as she felt his lips move against her own. She wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him closer, until his chest was pressed flush against her own soft flesh, and she could feel a sweet, desperate longing for him begin to throb right through her centre, and shifted restlessly with the dim idea of wrapping her legs around his thighs in an attempt to make his entire body cover her own.

‘Anne,’ he breathed feverishly against her throat as he laid a trail of kisses all the way down it to the frilled edge of her nightdress. ‘Anne, I— You—‘

She didn’t want him to talk. For whole weeks, they had talked until they were both sick of it, and nothing had ever come of it but hurt and misunderstandings and regret.

Putting her fingers against his jawline, she brought his face back up and drew him into a breathless, open-mouthed kiss.

One of his hands moved down her the side of her stomach until it rested on her hipbone, digging into her skin with a kind of reckless possessiveness which made her groan into his kiss and scratch her fingers down his back, the feeling of his naked skin under her palm as she did so making her fairly wild with desire.

His hand moved lower still, until it reached the hem of her short nightdress and then, after a millisecond’s hesitation, crawled underneath it, touching her bare thigh just beneath the line of her underwear.

She clung even closer to him, oblivious to everything save the wish that he would go on. Then Gilbert’s hand moved up, and he touched her there, and Anne shivered uncontrollably.

At that, he stopped the breathless kisses they’d never stopped sharing all that time and, holding himself away just a little – she nearly cried out in her desperate desire to stop him from doing so, from taking his heat and his hardness away – he looked at her with wide, hazy, tantalisingly dark eyes.

‘Anne, I—‘

One of the bedroom doors creaked open in the semi-darkness behind them.

Anne saw Gilbert’s eyes snap up, and felt his hands go rigid. Then, before she knew what was happening, he had somehow got himself off of her and was sitting on the far end of the couch, but not before he had thrown the forgotten blanket over her dishevelled person.

Mon Dieu, why aren’t you asleep?’ Jerry’s voice, sleepy and unfocused, asked somewhere above.

Anne closed her eyes, willing herself to breathe normally, her brain a haze of mixed frustrated desire and complete panic. What, oh what had she done?

‘Hello there, Anne. Oh, pardon, is she asleep?’ this in a sudden, somewhat anxious whisper.

‘She’s—‘

‘Actually, I’m not,’ Anne said, by an enormous effort of will keeping her voice from shaking. Slowly, careful to keep her nightdress decently draped over her thighs, she threw the blanket away and sat up. ‘It would be difficult to stay asleep in this bear’s den even if one wanted to. I wish you both good night.’

And, without another glance in Gilbert direction – she felt she would not be responsible for what she would do if she did look at him – she got up and with careful, measured steps, went back to the bedroom in which Diana was mercifully still sound asleep.

And then she lay down, and, touching her sore, swollen lips with cold, shaking fingers, shut her eyes tight and tried to stop her head from spinning.

Unsuccessfully.