‘It seemed to happen as soon as she saw me,’ he said. ‘She was looking cross, but when I came in, she just . . . I thought she was going to faint.’
‘She almost seemed to know you. You haven’t met my mother before, have you?’
‘Not that I know of.’ He shook his head. ‘No, I don’t think so. I’d think I’d remember meeting someone who hated me so much.’
‘It’s got to be a mistake. She must think you’re someone else. Or maybe she’s angrier than I thought about our getting engaged.’ She looked up at him. ‘What are we going to do?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘You can’t just stand outside. I need to talk with her.’
‘Do you think I should go stay somewhere else?’
‘Robbie, I can’t think of what’s got into her. I’m so sorry.’
‘It’s all right, I don’t mind. I’ll wait till she calms down. Is there a hotel somewhere nearby?’
‘The pub has rooms.’ She hesitated. ‘Maybe it’s best if you don’t go back in the house. I’ll get your bags and borrow Daddy’s car keys. Wait in the car?’
Inside the house, she took the keys from the bowl near the front door, then went to the kitchen and peered in. Mother was sitting at the table now, her head in her hands, her father with his arms around her, stroking her back gently. He’d poured her a glass of water.
‘Mummy?’ she said. Her mother flinched but didn’t look up. She met her father’s eyes, though, and he shook his head slightly.
Polly was hovering at the top of the stairs. ‘What happened?’ she demanded. ‘Why was Mummy screaming? I tried to find out but Daddy sent me away. Who was she shouting at?’
‘I don’t know what’s happening,’ Emily told her. ‘I’m going to take Robbie to the Royal Oak and see if we can get him a room there.’
‘Are you going to stay there with him?’
‘I . . . don’t know.’
‘Is there something wrong with Mummy? Or does she just not like Robbie?’
‘I don’t know, Polly. I don’t know any more than you do. Just . . . don’t bother them for a little while, OK? I’ll see you later.’
They drove to the pub in silence. Emily felt as if something had shattered. The ring on her finger was an unfamiliar weight. She kept glancing at the two hands, clasped together in gold.
At the Royal Oak, Colin Farmer was behind the bar and told them there was an available room. ‘Are you visiting the Greaveses?’ he asked Robbie. ‘They’re wonderful people. My brother would have died if Dr Greaves hadn’t diagnosed his appendix and sent him to hospital. It was this close to bursting.’ He held his fingers an eighth of an inch apart.
‘Yes,’ said Robbie. ‘They’re a great family. Mind pouring me one of those beers? Emily, what will you drink?’
‘A lemonade, please,’ she said.
Colin passed the room key over with Robbie’s change. ‘It’s up the stairs in the lounge bar, first door on your right. I can show you in a minute, after I’ve served these customers.’
‘No need, I’ll find it.’ They took their drinks to a table in the corner. The pub wasn’t that busy, but there were several people whom Emily knew. She nodded faintly to them and returned their greetings, feeling as if she were in some parallel universe where nothing strange had happened.
Robbie downed practically half his pint in one. ‘So what’s the plan?’ he asked her. ‘Are we going to lie low until your mother tells us what’s wrong?’
‘We can’t talk about this here. Most of the people in this pub know my family.’
‘Let’s go upstairs then, where we can talk in private.’
She shook her head. ‘I can’t go up to your room with you.’
‘Of course you can. You can do whatever you like.’
‘You don’t know how quickly word travels around here.’
‘We’re engaged, Emily. And who cares what people think?’
She just sipped her lemonade. The bubbles pricked her tongue and lips.
‘I guess that answers my question about whether you’re going back to the house or staying with me,’ he said.
‘I have to check whether my mother is all right, and find out what’s going on.’
Robbie nodded. He reached over and touched the ring she wore with his index finger. ‘Whatever’s wrong, we’ll get through it together. That’s the deal.’
She swallowed, and tried not to picture a situation where she would have to choose between her mother and Robbie. Having to make a decision between the woman who’d given her life and the man she’d known only for a few hours, but whom she loved.
Surely that wouldn’t happen. This was strange, but there must be an explanation. Her family weren’t given to histrionics. Aside from Polly’s enthusiasm over pop music and romance, no one in their house ever raised their voice. Her mother usually showed disapproval with criticism or with withdrawal, not with shouting.
It would all be a misunderstanding. She wouldn’t have to choose between her mother and Robbie. That was the sort of thing that happened in Greek tragedies or soap operas, not in real life. Not in a village like Blickley, with locals chatting happily in the pub, with the most dramatic event being a narrowly avoided burst appendix.
But if she had to choose . . .
She would have to choose Robbie, wouldn’t she? Wasn’t that what she had agreed when she promised to marry him?
And if it wasn’t, what had she promised? Had she been as foolish, as impulsive, as her mother had accused her of being?
She’d been staring at the ring, and Robbie’s finger touching the clasped hands. She looked up, startled.
‘We’ll get through it together,’ he repeated. ‘Whatever happens. This is meant to be, the two of us.’
She nodded. Two days, she’d known him for. Two days and two nights. And then all those months of letters, longing written in every line. And this ring: so real on her finger.
He squeezed her hand. ‘I need another drink. Do you want one?’
‘No, thank you.’
He went to the bar and she felt the glances of the other customers. They could be a normal couple, out for a drink before dinner with her happy, normal family. There was no reason to suppose that anyone could tell that anything was wrong.
Robbie returned with another pint, which he immediately took a long draught from.
‘You’re not . . .’ she began.
He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. ‘I’m not what?’
‘I’ve got to leave you here. You’re not going to drink lots, are you? I might need you.’
He frowned. ‘I don’t plan on getting plastered, if that’s what you mean.’
‘That just seems to be going down rather quickly.’
‘It’s been a strange afternoon. I can use a drink. I’m not my father, Emily. I’m not a drunk.’
‘I wasn’t saying you were. I don’t even know your father. I was just saying . . .’
‘This will be my last beer.’
‘I’ll wait for you. Ring the pub and I’ll meet you.’
He leaned over the table and kissed her cheek, and Emily blushed, knowing they were being watched.