The frantic hammering at the front door drew Tristan from his study with rather more alacrity than was usually the case. Expecting a fugitive from justice at the very least, it was almost a disappointment to find it was only Susie.
‘It’s raining a bit!’ she said cheerfully.
That was an understatement. Her cropped hair was sticking to her face and her modern summer frock, one of those dresses that went straight up and down without a shadow of a curve and with a waistline somewhere about the knees, was plastered to her body and showed, in excessive detail, every contour of her slender figure.
He took a breath and made a monumental effort to stop staring.
‘So it is,’ he said, trying to match her humour. ‘You had…had better come inside.’
‘Jolly grateful,’ she said, and skipped into the house. She kicked off her shoes the moment she was over the threshold and, almost before he had closed the door behind her, she was tugging up the hem of her skirt and unhitching her stockings…
‘What are you doing?!’
He could not prevent the panic from rising in his voice, and she turned and gave him a cheeky grin.
‘If I were here to seduce you,’ she said, ‘I’d not have turned up soaked to the skin and with my powder in rivers down my face. Give me some credit for making myself presentable! I simply don’t want to tread soggy, muddy stocking water into your carpet, that’s all. I’m afraid I took a short cut across a damp meadow and…well, my shoes suffered for it, that’s all I’ll say.’
It might be worth investigating, thought Tristan, whether the heat generated by all the blood in his body rushing to his cheeks could be used to power the house. All they would have to do would be to arrange Susie’s constant presence in the house and he and Sarah need never pay for their electricity again. How she could stand there, dripping wet and forlorn on his front doormat, and still remain master of the situation he would never know, but it was certainly one of her more maddening traits.
‘Won’t you come inside?’ he said, controlling his embarrassment, and she followed him along the hall and into the salon.
‘We must get you out of those wet…that is, I mean to say…’
He broke off and felt the heat flood back into his cheeks, for his mind had flung up the image of him helping her off with her dress, and the terror that she might look into his eyes and read his mind froze his tongue. Good Lord, how on earth could this bit of a girl make him so flustered?
Resisting the urge to bury his face in his hands, he took control of himself.
‘Perhaps a towel,’ he managed, and she looked at him with humour dancing in her eyes.
‘Yes please!’ she said. ‘Anything to be a little drier!’
’A hot bath, perhaps,’ Tristan said, and she laughed again.
‘That won’t make me drier!’
‘No,’ wretched wench! ‘but it would make you warmer. I do not want you to take cold.’
‘Oh, it’s a warm day, rain aside,’ she said, dismissing the possibility with all the confidence of youth and strength. ‘But a towel would be a start.’
He left the room and went upstairs to fetch her one, only to realise halfway up the stairs that she was following him.
‘I can’t very well take my dress off down there, can I?’ she said. ‘You said it yourself, Tristan,’ and she laughed. ‘We do have to get me out of these wet clothes.’
He showed her into Sarah’s room, for want of anywhere better, and she took the towel and disappeared with another saucy grin, while he rested one hand against the wall, trying to draw a little strength before the battle recommenced.
She emerged onto the landing a few minutes later, drying her hair on the towel, and he realised that he had not thought about what she might wear instead of her sodden frock. Fortunately, Susie was a resourceful girl and had solved this matter for herself by donning Sarah’s dressing gown and bedroom slippers. Though it was too big for her, the material was thin and she had pulled it tight about her waist. It sat neatly on her figure, much as her wet dress had done, and for a second time that afternoon he had to stop himself from staring.
She continued to towel her hair, a small smile on her face.
‘You do have a very crude mind, Tristan Denny,’ she said, and he stared at her.
‘You do!’ she said. ‘Always thinking about sex. You couldn’t even say ‘Better get you out of those wet clothes,’ without stopping to blush over it, and now you’re thinking about the fact that there’s nothing but a layer of cotton between me and the fresh air. Filthy, I call it.’
‘I’m teasing you.’
I wonder if she knows how close she was to the truth? he thought, and cleared his throat to buy time before he had to speak again.
‘What will you wear to go back to the school?’ he asked, for he wanted her out of his sight as soon as possible - and wasn’t that always the way? He missed her furiously when she wasn’t here, and yet as soon as she was…
‘Ah. Well. That presents a problem,’ said Susie. ‘I love your sister dearly, but…it isn’t just across, it’s down. I’m not just thinner, I’m a whole lot taller. I’m afraid there’s not a lot to be done about that.’
‘Mm,’ he said, deliberately noncommittal. ‘But…what else is there to be done?’
‘Well…she may be smaller and stouter than me, but you aren’t…’
‘But…’ He blinked. ‘Women cannot wear trousers!’
‘Why not? I have the same number of legs as you.’
‘But you…I mean, you cannot possibly want to!’
‘Men wear skirts.’
‘They do? Oh - but Susie, no! Kilts are not the same thing!’
‘They look pretty skirt-like to me. If Scotsmen can go showing off their hairy knees in skirts, why shouldn’t I show off my two legs in a pair of breeks?’
‘But Susie - trousers! So inelegant - it is not right!’
‘D’you know, Tristan,’ she said, with a sudden touch of asperity, ‘sometimes I wonder what I see in you. There is nothing sacred about trousers - and no earthly reason why I shouldn’t borrow some of yours. A woman’s ankle is no longer a sight fit to make men wild with lust - well, apart from crude minded, sex-obsessed men like you, that is.’
Tristan gaped, gulped and gave up. He reached out without taking his eyes from her and opened the door to his bedroom.
‘Take what you want,’ he said, hoarsely, ‘and go - and for God’s sake leave me in peace!’
‘I knew you’d see sense,’ she said, as sweet as ever she could be, and as she skipped past him into his bedroom, she paused, reached up to his cheek with her hand, and then kissed him. ’Old fashioned doesn’t suit you in the slightest,’ she said, as he stuttered. ‘I’ll bring everything back tomorrow, and I promise not to fall into immoral ways in the meantime.’
And as she slipped in, she called out to him.
‘I’ll leave the door open, shall I? Then you can watch me strip off, like you’ve been wanting to all afternoon!’
Tristan Denny took a deep breath, then threw his dignity to the wind, turned, and fled.