‘The Canary Islands. We’re flying to Tenerife in the morning and spending Christmas and New Year there,’ Bert informed them happily. ‘I’ve never been on a plane before, never even had a holiday, in fact, unless you count a day trip to Scarborough when I was a lad, so this will be a first for me. I’m right looking forward to it, too. So’s Doris.’
‘How wonderful!’ Sean exclaimed, genuinely delighted for them. Another couple of guests came over to speak to them at that moment so he and Molly moved aside. People were milling about, chatting to friends or sampling the buffet which had been arranged on long trestle tables at the far side of the room. Sean grimaced when his stomach rolled at the thought of the delicious-looking spread and he saw Molly look at him.
‘I never got chance to eat anything today. I was too busy putting things away into cupboards and drawers and forgot all about lunch.’
‘Why don’t you get something now?’ she suggested, leading the way to the buffet tables. Picking up a plate and some napkin-wrapped cutlery, she handed them to him, snatching her hand away when their fingers accidentally touched. ‘It all looks delicious,’ she declared but Sean could hear the quaver in her voice and didn’t know whether to be pleased or sorry. Obviously, Molly wasn’t as indifferent to him as she was making out.
‘Aren’t you having anything?’ he asked, trying to batten down the rush of emotions that hit him at that idea. Did he want her to feel something for him or not? Quite frankly, he couldn’t decide or, rather, he chose not to arrive at a conclusion. It was too risky to do that, to examine his feelings and come up with an answer that might only complicate matters even further.
‘How about some of this smoked salmon?’ he suggested, spearing a morsel on the end of his fork. He offered it to her and smiled, praying that she couldn’t tell how ambivalent he felt, how confused. He wanted her so much but he couldn’t have her unless he broke his vow to Claire. And the thought tore him in two. ‘You always loved smoked salmon, didn’t you?’ he added inanely because he needed to keep talking, otherwise he might do something really stupid. He couldn’t promise Molly the earth when it wasn’t his to give.
‘Yes, I did.’ She looked back at him and Sean could see a host of memories in her eyes, recollections of all the other times when they had eaten together, laughed together, got to know one another’s likes and dislikes. When she leant forward and delicately closed her lips around the morsel of food Sean felt the blood surge through his veins. There in a room filled with people laughing and enjoying themselves, he and Molly stood alone, set apart from everyone else by their memories. He knew then that he would always remember this moment because it was when he realised that he wouldn’t have changed what had happened between them even if he could have done. That time he had spent with Molly was far too precious; he needed the memory of it far too much. It was the one bright and shining period to come out of all these long years of darkness and despair.
Molly could taste the savoury tang of the salmon on her tongue and shuddered. She wasn’t sure why she had done that—leant forward and accepted the treat Sean had offered her. The action smacked of an intimacy that she knew she shouldn’t encourage and yet she had still done it, hadn’t she? Why? Did she want to experience their former closeness once more when it would mean risking getting hurt all over again? Surely she wasn’t so foolish as to imagine that this time it would be different, that this time Sean would want her to remain in his life for good? After what she had learned about Claire, the possibility of that happening was zero.
Picking up a plate, Molly started to fill it with delicacies even though the thought of actually eating any of it made her feel sick. However, it was something to do, something normal and stress-free, and that was what she needed desperately. Sean had loaded his plate with a selection of goodies and was looking round for somewhere to sit down; he nodded towards a couple of vacant chairs in the corner near the window.
‘Let’s go over there while we eat this little lot,’ he suggested, leading the way.
Molly followed him in silence, half afraid that all the thoughts whizzing around inside her head would somehow pop out into the open. It wasn’t Sean’s fault if he could never love her like he had loved Claire and it would be wrong to make him feel guilty about it. Sitting down, she spread the paper napkin over her lap then balanced her plate on her knees, hoping that she would manage to eat some of the food she had collected.