‘Bounder?’ he repeated, amused. ‘Do you really say that?’
‘Robert! I’m waiting!’
‘I’ll go and fetch them.’ Emily stepped towards the bank, but Robbie caught her by the wrist.
‘And get all wet? That would mean I’d rescued you for nothing.’ He called, ‘Cynthia, tie the boats together with that line. And you’ve got a pole there. Try pushing yourself towards the bank with it.’
Cynthia continued frowning, her arms folded, making no move towards the pole, as the boats continued to drift slowly downstream. They were quite a distance away from Robbie and Emily now.
‘I’ll do it!’ yelled Polly. She grabbed the line trailing from the bow of her punt and scrambled up and over the side of her boat into Cynthia’s. She tied the two bowlines together and then reached for the pole.
‘Your little sister is something,’ Robbie told Emily. ‘Does that run in the family?’
Polly nearly whacked Cynthia in the face with the pole, getting it into the river.
‘She’s never been punting before,’ said Emily.
‘Only as a passenger.’
‘I’m not sure she’s going to manage,’ said Robbie. He couldn’t seem to make himself let go of Emily’s wrist. He thought about slipping his arm around her waist and wondered if she’d slap him, considering he’d admitted he had a date currently drifting away from them down the river. On balance, he thought it was worth the risk.
She didn’t slap him.
Polly pushed, grunting, and the boat wavered very slightly towards the bank. ‘How was that?’ she yelled. ‘Should I do it again?’
‘I’d better go after them.’ Reluctantly, he released Emily’s waist and jumped back into the water.
It only took a few minutes for him to reach them. Polly was pulling the pole up to have another try. She narrowly missed his head as he stood up next to the punt.
‘Whoa,’ he said. ‘Don’t kill me, please.’
‘Oh, sorry,’ said Polly. ‘Thank you for rescuing us.’
‘No problem.’ Cynthia was staring daggers at him, but he smiled at her and began pulling the linked punts towards the bank.
‘It’s very romantic,’ said Polly. ‘My name is Paulina Greaves, what’s yours?’
‘Robert Brandon the Second.’
‘Are you American?’
Having the punts tied side by side was a little awkward and the boat full of snooty students glided past them, taunting, but Robbie managed to get his boats to the bank without too much trouble. Once there, Polly hopped out immediately and Cynthia stayed in the boat, on her high horse. Standing waist-deep in the water, Robbie lashed the boats together more efficiently and then climbed out on to the bank to moor them to a pole sunk in the bank for this purpose.
Emily had walked the short distance along the bank to meet them and her sister was chattering a mile a minute to her.
‘Did you see how I jumped from our boat to the other one? I think I could have steered it to the bank if Robert hadn’t come back. Did you notice he’s American? That girl he’s with is snotty, though, isn’t she?’
‘Polly,’ Emily said, warningly.
‘Do you want to get out?’ Robbie asked, holding out his hand to Cynthia, who merely glared. Shrugging, he went to Emily.
‘You were doing a fine job, Paulina,’ he told her. ‘You would have got the hang of it eventually. I can show you some tricks, if you want.’
‘Yes! That would be—’
‘No,’ said Emily. ‘Robert isn’t free to spend time with us. He’s got a prior commitment.’
‘His date is waiting for him. Isn’t that right, Robbie?’
There was a loud ‘harumph’ from the punt.
‘At least let me get your pole for you,’ Robbie said. He jumped in the river a third time and the boat full of toffs jeered. He cheerfully treated them to a rude hand signal before swimming to the stranded pole and retrieving it.
By the time he’d returned, Cynthia had disappeared.
‘She stormed off,’ Polly told him.
‘Oh.’ Robbie heaved the pole into Emily and Polly’s boat. ‘Well then, that solves one problem, doesn’t it? I’ve officially got no plans.’
He grinned at Emily, who tightened her lips and looked down at the grass.
‘Paulina,’ he said, not taking his gaze from Emily, the way her hair slipped out from behind her ear to fall around her face, ‘you can practise your pole placement right here on the bank, if you want to. Practise twisting it when you pull it up. That way it won’t get stuck and you won’t get stranded, like your sister did.’
‘Good idea!’ said Polly and she bounced away to the punt.
‘Her name is Polly, really,’ Emily said to the grass. ‘It’s not Paulina.’
‘Paulina suits her.’ Robbie stepped closer. ‘Meet me tonight, Emily.’
‘I’ve got plans with Polly.’
‘Can I tag along?’
‘No. You can’t.’
She shook her head and a strand of hair fell into her eyes. He tucked it behind her ear for her. Her hair was like silk.
She swallowed. ‘You’re supposed to be with another woman.’
‘But right now, you and me. We saw each other at the station, and I wanted to talk to you, but you were running in the other direction. I thought you were getting on a train. If I’d known you weren’t I would have stuck around.’
‘I was meeting my sister.’
‘I don’t think I’ve ever felt this way before.’ He made to touch the side of her face, the softness of her cheek, but she inhaled sharply again and stepped back.
‘That doesn’t matter,’ she said. ‘You’ve been incredibly rude.’
‘OK,’ he said. ‘OK, I’ll go after her and apologise. You’re right – I’ve behaved badly. But I couldn’t resist. You were just . . . hanging there. Like an apple on a tree.’ He laughed, and he saw her mouth curve slightly into an answering smile.
‘Go and apologise,’ she told him.
‘I’m already gone.’ He took a step backwards, another, watching her face. ‘But only if you promise you’ll meet me. If not tonight, then tomorrow.’
‘I don’t think it’s a good idea.’
‘It’s a great idea. It’s a wonderful idea. Meet me at – when are you free?’
‘My sister’s train goes at four,’ she said reluctantly.
‘Meet me at five. Right here, in this very spot. Five o’clock.’
‘I might not make it.’
‘I’ll be waiting anyway.’
He walked backwards for as long as he could, so he didn’t have to stop looking at her. Then his shoulder hit a tree and he rubbed it ruefully and turned around.
He found Cynthia not far down the path, sitting on a low wall smoking a cigarette. Although she made a show of not looking at him, it was obvious that she’d waited on purpose.
He sat beside her. ‘Sorry. That was rude. I shouldn’t have let you drift down the river on your own.’
‘Anything could have happened. I could have tipped over.’
‘Well, no, that couldn’t have happened. You were perfectly safe, and anyway, the river was only a few feet deep.’