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'So you've actually done it, then? You've handed in your notice and left?'
'Yes,' Sara agreed in a low voice, flinching a little as though hearing the words physically pained her.
Her friend and neighbour grimaced sympathetically. She was ten years older than Sara and had known her ever since Sara had bought the house next to their own four years before, and personally she felt like giving a very, very loud cheer. Ian Saunders, Sara's boss, might be six feet odd of blond good-looking manhood, all outward charm and attractiveness, but inwardly he was as cold and callous as it was possible for a man to be. That was her considered opinion, but in the past, no matter how many times she had voiced it, Sara had refused to listen to her, to hear a word against the man she worked for and loved.
'Well, you know what I think,' she told Sara now. 'For what it's worth, I consider that leaving is the best thing you could have done.'
Sara's mouth twisted sadly. She was a tall, slender woman of twenty-nine, with a quiet, calm manner that masked a keenly efficient brain. Her looks mirrored her personality. Her face was delicately oval in shape, her features elegant and well-proportioned, only her mouth, with its unexpected fullness, hinting that her outward control might mask deep and fiery passions.
'It wasn't exactly a calm and reasoned decision made of my own free will.'
The pain in her voice made Margaret, her neighbour, turn her head away from her in angry sympathy.
How could Ian Saunders have treated Sara so badly after all she had done for him, working for him like a slave, helping him to build up his business into the success it was today, and all the time loving him, hoping ? Although Sara had always been openly honest in her own knowledge that Ian didn't return her love, privately Margaret suspected he must have surely guessed how she felt, and, having guessed, out of compassion and concern ought to have suggested years ago that it might be wiser for Sara to find a job elsewhere. Instead of which he had allowed an intimacy to develop between them, a closeness, even if that relationship had been completely non-sexual, which had held out just enough unspoken promise, just enough allure, to make poor Sara go on hoping that maybe one day a miracle would occur and that he would turn to her want her need her not as his faithful PA but as a woman, his woman.
Instead of which he had calmly walked into his office a week ago and announced that he was getting engaged and that he would soon be married.
Sara had been devastated, but when she, Margaret, had urged her then to hand in her notice and make a new life for herself she had selflessly refused, shaking her head, pointing out that if she left it would damage the business which Ian had worked so hard to build up.
'You were right,' Sara was saying unhappily now. 'I should have had the sense to hand in my notice when Ian told me that he and Anna were getting married. But, like the blind fool that I was, I had no idea that Anna wanted my job as well as ' She broke off, swallowing painfully.
It wasn't like her to unburden herself like this, but what had happened yesterday had upset and distressed her so much
She had gone to work as usual. Ian had been away seeing one of their clients, and although she had felt wary and uncomfortable at first when Anna walked into the office, she had had no idea of the real purpose of the other woman's visit until Anna had launched into the speech which had ultimately led to Sara's acknowledging that for her own sake she had to make the break from Ian and forge a completely new life for herself well away from him.
'What exactly did she say to you?' Margaret pressed gently, sensing Sara's need to unburden herself.
They were sitting in Sara's neat, spotless kitchen. Margaret had called round to see her, alerted to the fact that something must be wrong by the fact that Sara had arrived home from work halfway through the afternoon and, after parking her car haphazardly in front of the house, had practically run inside.
Margaret had followed her, anxious to discover what was wrong and if there was anything she could do to help.
Sara shrugged, bending her head over the mug of coffee she was nursing. Her hair was straight and silky, a soft, pretty fair colour which she had expertly highlighted and styled into an elegant shoulder-length bob, which added to her air of competence and efficiency.
Margaret, who had seen her when she was at home, doing her housework, her hair tied up in a pony-tail, her face free of make-up, had been surprised to discover how very young and vulnerable it had made her look, how very much more approachable.
'More sexy,' Ben, her husband, had corrected her with a grin. Margaret had frowned him down, even while she acknowledged that it was true. Sara might know how to present herself to make herself look efficient, but when it came to presenting herself in a way that made men
She gave a small sigh; as a modern woman it went against the grain to suggest to another member of her sex that she ought deliberately to focus on those facets of her looks and personality which made her look more vulnerable and less efficient, and yet she knew how much Sara, for all her efficiency, longed for children, a family When she spoke of her elder sister, and her two children and another on the way, her face softened and her eyes turned from blue to violet
As Sara stared into the brown depths of her coffee, she gave a tiny shudder.
What had Anna said? Margaret had asked her. Even now she could hardly endure to recall exactly what Anna Thomas had said to her when she had walked into Ian's office, red lips pouting, her white-blonde hair a mass of untidy tousled curls, her skirt surely too short and tight
And yet obviously Ian found her attractive. Far more so than Sara swallowed, forcing herself to block out her emotions and to concentrate instead on answering Margaret's question.
'Well, basically, she simply pointed out to me that both she and Ian were aware of my my feelings for him, that in fact they'd both derived quite a lot of amusement from the fact that I obviously thought I'd managed to keep them hidden. As she pointed out, there's nothing quite as pathetic as a secretary in love with her boss, especially when there's absolutely no chance of his returning her feelings.'
She paused as Margaret made a small sound of shocked anger, and shook her head.
'Well, it's true enough, even though I had rather flattered myself that Ian and I were more partners than boss and secretary.'
'Partners!' Margaret interrupted explosively, unable to control herself any longer. 'Why, you virtually ran that business for him! Without you '
Sara smiled sadly at her.
'I wish it was true, but in all honesty it was Ian's sales-manship, his flair that made the business a success. I merely worked in the background. Anyway, to continue, as Anna pointed out to me, it would hardly be in my best interests to stay on with Ian now that they were getting married; she could easily replace me in the office, and she and Ian had decided that it would be better all round if I looked for another job. She did say that I could stay until the end of the month if I wished.'
Sara paused, the wry self-contempt in her voice making Margaret wince for her.
'What could I do? Naturally I told her I'd be leaving immediately. That was yesterday. I only went in today to clear my desk, to tidy up a few odds and ends '
She bit her lip. She was trying hard not to break down. It had been such an extraordinary interview, so unexpected, so hurtful, when she had believed that she had already suffered all the hurt she could possibly endure.
She had known that Ian was seeing Anna, of course, just as she had known about all the other women he had dated in the ten years during which she had worked for him. She had been devastated when he'd told her that he was marrying Anna, but she'd thought she had managed to conceal her feelings from him, just as she had believed that he had never once, in all the years she had worked for him, guessed about the hopes she cherished, the love she felt for him.
She had honestly believed that Margaret was the only person who knew how she felt, and only because, the year after Sara had moved in next door to her, Margaret had come round unexpectedly one evening and found her in tears because Ian had cancelled the evening out he had arranged for the two of them, as their 'Christmas party'and a thank-you to her for all her hard work during the year, so that he could go instead to a party with his latest girlfriend.
Not even her parents or her sister knew or at least she assumed they didn't, and she wondered miserably now if even they had guessed, and had kept silent out of pity and compassion for her.
She was fully deserving of the contempt Anna had poured on her, she reflected bitterly now. She was, after all, that most ridiculous of stereotyped creatures, the dull, plain woman, desperately in love with her charming, handsome boss But at least now she had broken out of that mould by handing in her notice.
'Well, if you want my advice, you're well out of it,' Margaret told her roundly, adding equally forthrightly, 'All right, I know you hate anyone criticising Ian, but for once I'm going to say what I think, and that is that he's used you, used your talents, your skills, and now'
'And now that he's fallen in love withAnna there isn't any room in his life for me any more,'Sara interrupted her quietly. 'And to think that all this time I honestly believed I'd successfully hidden how I felt. At first, when I got that job with him well, I was only nineteen, my head stuffed with dreams.' She was talking more to herself than to her friend.
'I'd come to London from Shropshire because I wanted to improve my skills, my chances of getting a top-class job. My parents were concerned about my leaving home, but they didn't try to stop me. At first I was thoroughly miserable thoroughly homesick. I was sharing a place with three other girls, working as a temp during the day, and going to college at night to improve my computer and language skills, and then I met Ian. He was taking the same computer course. He was twenty-five then, and he had just broken away and set up his own business. He was a salesman really, he told me, and what he really needed desperately was someone to run the office for him. Eventually he offered me the job, and I jumped at it. He was always a generous boss financially and then, when Gran died, I used the money I inherited from her to buy this place. I wasn't homesick anymore I'd made friends, made a life here for myself, and, if I couldn't bear to admit it to anyone else, I had already admitted to myself that it was my love for Ian as much as the challenge of my job that kept me working for him. Like a fool, I never gave up hoping '
And he allowed you to have that hope, Margaret thought shrewdly, but didn't say so. She felt that Sara had endured more than enough already without having any more burdens to carry.
'So what will you do now?' she asked gently.
'Go home,' Sara told her, smiling wryly when she saw Margaret's expression.
'Yes, silly, isn't it? I'm a grown woman of twenty-nine, who's lived in London for ten years, and yet for some reason I still think of Shropshire as home. I've got quite a bit saved I can let this place if necessary I can afford to take a few months off, give myself time ' She shook her head uncomfortably, aware that one of the reasons she was so intent on leaving London was because she was afraidafraid that, once her initial shock and the anger that went with it had gone, she would become vulnerably weak that she would find excuses for getting in touch with Iansmall matters outstanding at the office small facts which only she knewand she didn't want to allow herself to degenerate into that kind of helpless self-destructiveness. Things were bad enough as it was, without her making them worse without her knowingly allowing herself to hang on to the coat-tails of Ian's life, pathetic and unwanted, an object of derision and contempt.
She closed her eyes as her vision became blurred by tears, obliterating the mental image she had just had of Ian and Anna together, laughing about her, Ian's handsome blond head flung back, his blue eyes laughing, his expression one of callous contempt. She shivered suddenly, acknowledging how odd it was that she was able to conjure up that image so easily; and yet, had anyone ever suggested to her that Ian could be callous, could be cruel, could be deliberately malicious and unkind, she would have refuted their criticisms immediately. Except over the years there had been occasions, moments, when even her devotion had wavered, flinching a little as he made a decision, a comment, a pronouncement which she had soft-heartedly felt to be less warm and generous than it should have been.
She had known always that he was egotistical, but she had allowed herself to believe it was the egotism of a spoiled little boy who didn't know any better, who would never deliberately inflict cruelty on others. Had she been wrong? Had she all this time refused to allow herself to see the truth? She shivered again, causing Margaret to watch her with some concern.
Despite Sara's outward air of competence and self-containment, her neighbour had always privately thought that these only narrowly masked an inner vulnerability and fragility, a soft femininity which made Margaret despise Ian Saunders even more for his lack of concern and compassion for her friend.
'Yes, I think you should go home,' she said firmly now. 'Even though I know I'm going to miss you desperately, especially when I'm looking for someone to look after those two awful brats of mine.'
Sara laughed shakily. 'You know you adore them,' she countered.
'Mmm but I try not to let them guess it. It's hard work at times being the only woman in a household of three males.' She paused and then said quietly, 'I know this probably isn't the time to raise this particular subject, but I'm going to say something to you that I've wanted to say for a long time. I'm older than you, Sara, and I've seen a lot more of life. I know how you feel about Ian Saunders, or at least how you think you feel, but in all honesty you've never allowed yourself to discover whether you could allow yourself to love or care for any other man, have you?' she asked gently.
'Allow myself' Sara began, but Margaret refused to let her speak.
'Falling in love is easy, loving someone is a lot harder; and going on loving them, through the nitty-gritty of mundane everyday life, is even harder, and even more worthwhile.
'I know from the things you've told me, from watching you with my own two, that you want children. You know what you should do now, don't you? You should put Ian Saunders right out of your mind and look round for a nice man to marry and have those children with.'
Sara couldn't help it. She flushed defensively. 'I can't switch off my feelings just like that, marry a man I don't love, no matter how much I might want a family.'