Page 15 of Wife by Agreement

'You were a much nicer employer than husband,' she said fairly. 'And I've been an abysmal failure as a wife; admit it. I irritate you, embarrass you. I have appalling dress sense.'

'Appalling dress sense wasn't grounds for divorce the last time I looked.'

'But non-consummation is grounds for annulment.'

'So we're to annul our marriage and then you resume your job as nanny. Is that about the size of it?'

When he put it like that it didn't sound quite as feasible as it had when her feverish mind had seized on the solution. She nodded, but there was less certainty in her face now.

'Are you on some medication I don't know about?' he enquired with interest.

She sank down onto the edge of her bed with a sigh. 'Maybe I didn't think this through exactly. There's no need to be sarcastic. I was trying to help.'

'Then I hope you've put all thought of annulment out of your head. Unless both parties co-operate it's hell to prove unless you're a... Dear God,' he said slowly, staring at her averted face. 'You are, aren't you?' He sounded so profoundly shocked that in other circumstances she might have laughed.

'What if I am?' she responded belligerently. Being a virgin at the advanced age of twenty-three was certainly an embarrassment, and she was sensitive about the subject.

'It never occurred to me,' he admitted faintly. 'Why didn't you tell me?'

'It's hardly relevant, is it?' she said, trying to disguise her intense discomfort beneath a cool facade. She tucked her legs underneath her and wrapped the ends of her cotton wrap over her knees.

'Bloody time-bomb!' He didn't bang his head against the striped silk wallpaper, but as he rested his brow against it he managed to give the impression he wanted to.

'I beg your pardon?'

He turned his head away from the wall and glared at her. 'You were twenty-two,' he exploded, his voice thick with resentment. ‘I naturally assumed that should you become attracted to anyone you could be relied upon to act maturely. Do you honestly think I'd have suggested this arrangement if I'd known you hadn't explored your own sexuality? It's easy to see now why you're acting so irrationally—your hormones have finally caught up with you. You'll be hanging posters of boy bands on your wall next. I can see it all!' he taunted, closing his eyes on the awful mental image this conjured.

'My hormones or lack of them nothing to do with this. You don't trust me!'

'Trust you! I trust you about as much as I'd trust any adolescent experimenting with sex, and we all know how reliable they are.'

'I'm not experimenting with sex!' she burst out, her face pink with a mixture of embarrassment and frustration. 'I really resent the implication I'm not a fit person to take care of Emma and Tom.'

'I know you care about Emma and Tom—that's not the problem we're facing here. You grew up too fast, Hannah. You didn't have the opportunity to be selfish.

'So now I'm selfish!'

'Tell me, what were you doing when other young people were being wild and irresponsible—experimenting with their freedom and lack of responsibilities? Shall I tell you?' He didn't give her the opportunity to reply. 'You were struggling to support yourself in some miserable bedsit somewhere. You were getting qualifications to earn a living and holding down part-time jobs to pay the bills. You missed out on a whole chunk of your youth. So why should I be surprised if you're trying to recapture it now?' The peculiar self-recrimination in his voice was more unsettling than his unreasonable accusations.

'How did you know...?' she began, amazed by the startling ^ccuracy of the picture his soft words drew.

'You came into this house as an employee, remember. I followed up your references and it wasn't hard, knowing your background, to imagine what sort of life you'd had. A lot of the people I come across have had similar starts in life,' he reminded her. 'It's a road that all too frequently leads to the wrong side of the law. Not everyone is as single-minded and determined as you are.'

The immediate impression of quiet restraint and malleability had been the reason he'd missed the iron streak in her character. He suspected he was going to pay for this oversight—he already was paying!

'If you believe that, why do you doubt my ability to fulfil my obligation to the children?' His evaluation of her character came as something of a shock. Strangely, it made her feel less awkward about behaving naturally in front of him. 'I made a commitment and I won't do anything to compromise that.'

'You say that now, but what if you fall in love? Where would that leave our arrangement?' 'That's not possible,' she said hoarsely. 'A statement like that says everything about your inexperience,' he observed with the sort of lofty scorn that set her teeth on edge.

'What about you? You might fall in love.' 'I've been there and done that,' he said, his sexy mouth tightening with disapproval. 'The whole point I'm trying to make is you haven't.'