A Happy Meeting. Betty Neels

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A Happy Meeting - Betty Neels

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      A Happy Meeting

      Betty Neels


      MILLS & BOON

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      THE day had been warm for early October but now the sun was low on the horizon and there was a chilly breeze. The quiet country road running between the trees was full of shadows; in an hour or so it would be dusk. The girl sitting on the grass verge shivered a little and put her arm around the lean, unkempt animal beside her: a half-grown dog in a deplorable condition, the rope which had held him fast to a tree still dangling from his scraggy neck. It was when she had found him not an hour earlier and struggled to free him that he had knocked her down. She had fallen awkwardly and twisted her ankle, and getting herself as far as the road had been a nightmare that she was relieved to have done with. Now she sat, more or less patiently, hoping for help. Two cars had gone past since she had dragged herself and the dog to the road but although she had waved and shouted neither of them had stopped. She studied her ankle in the dimming light; it had swollen alarmingly and she hadn’t been able to get her shoe off; there was nothing to do but wait for help, although, since the road was not much more than a country lane connecting two villages, there didn’t seem much chance of that before early morning when the farm tractors would begin their work.

      ‘We may have to spend the night,’ she told the animal beside her, for the sound of her voice was a comfort of sorts, ‘but I’ll look after you, although I’m not sure how.’ The animal cowered closer; she could feel its ribs against her side, and she gave it a soothing pat. ‘It’s nice to have company, anyway,’ she assured him.

      Dusk had fallen when she heard a car coming and presently its headlights swept over them as it passed.

      ‘That’s that,’ said the girl. ‘You can’t blame anyone for not stopping…’

      However, the car was coming back, reversing slowly until it was level with them and then stopping. The man who got out appeared to her nervous eyes to be a giant and she felt a distinct desire to get up and run, only she couldn’t. He came towards her slowly and somehow when he spoke his voice was reassuringly quiet and calm.

      ‘Can I help?’ he asked, and his voice was kind too. ‘You’re hurt?’

      He stood for a moment looking down at her; a small girl with no looks, too thin, but even in the deepening dusk her eyes were beautiful.

      ‘Well, not really hurt, but I twisted my ankle and I can’t walk.’ She studied him carefully and liked what she saw. This was no young man out for an evening’s ride but a soberly clad man past his first youth, his pale hair silvered at the temples. He was good-looking too, though that did not matter. ‘I would be very grateful for a lift as far as Minton Cracknell; it’s only a couple of miles along the road. I live there.’

      ‘Of course, but may I look at your ankle first? I’m a doctor and it looks as though it needs attention.’

      He squatted down beside her, and, when the dog growled, put out a large hand for the beast to sniff. ‘We must have that shoe off,’ he told her, and got out a pocket knife and cut the laces.

      ‘I’m going to hurt you,’ he said, and did despite his gentleness. ‘Good girl. Catch your breath while I get some bandage from the car.’

      He was gone and back again before she had had the time to wipe away the tears on her cheeks; she hadn’t said a word while the shoe was coming off but she hadn’t been able to stop the tears. He handed her a handkerchief without a word and said cheerfully, ‘It will feel much better once I’ve strapped it up. You will have to get it X-rayed tomorrow and rest it for a day or two.’

      He got to his feet. ‘The dog is yours?’ he asked.

      ‘Well, no—I—I heard him barking as I came along the road and he’d been tied to a tree and left to starve; he accidentally tripped me up as I was freeing him…’

      ‘Poor beast, but lucky for him that you heard him. Will you adopt him?’

      He was talking idly, giving her time to pull herself together.

      ‘Well, I don’t think I can—my stepmother doesn’t like dogs—but I can give him a bed and a meal and see if there’s anyone in the village…’

      ‘Well, let’s get you home,’ he said kindly, and scooped her up with a word to the dog, who needed no encouragement but climbed into the back of the car after the girl had been settled in the front seat.

      ‘He’ll make an awful mess,’ she said apologetically, ‘and it’s a Bentley, isn’t it?’

      The man looked amused. ‘I don’t suppose there will be any lasting damage,’ he observed. ‘Where do you live exactly?’

      ‘If you go through the village it’s the house on the right behind a high brick wall. It’s called the Old Rectory. My father inherited it from his father; it’s been in the family for years…’

      She glanced at his profile. ‘You’ve been very kind.’

      ‘I’m glad that I happened to pass by, Miss…?’

      ‘Preece, Cressida Preece.’ She added shyly, ‘You’re not English, are you?’

      ‘Dutch. Van der Linus—Aldrik van der Linus.’

      She said politely, ‘Your English is quite perfect. Oh, here’s the village.’

      The narrow main street of the little place was empty; it was the hour of high tea and lights shone from windows as they passed the small houses lining it.

      ‘It’s just along here, past the church…’

      The houses had petered out and the car’s lights touched on the brick wall and an open gate. The drive was short, ending in a small sweep before a nice old house, not over large but solidly built. The man got out but before he reached the door it was opened by a severe-looking woman with iron-grey hair drawn back into a bun. She had a long thin face and sharp, very dark eyes, and she was dressed in a shabby dress under a white apron.

      She looked at the man with a belligerence which he ignored.

      ‘I have brought Miss Preece home,’ he told her. ‘She has damaged her ankle. If you will tell me where her room is, I will carry her indoors. I think there is no lasting damage but she should rest it for a few days.’

      The woman didn’t answer him but brushed past him and out to the car.

      ‘Miss Cressida, what has happened? Are you hurt? You must get to your bed…’

      The girl spoke matter-of-factly, ‘Moggy, dear, I’m quite all right, just sprained an ankle. Mother’s not back?’ There was a hint of anxiety in her voice, and the man, who had come to stand by the car, frowned.

      ‘No, thank the lord. We’ll get you indoors.’ Moggy heard a faint growl from the back seat and exclaimed ‘What’s that—an animal…?’


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