Midnight is a lonely pla.., p.1
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       Midnight Is a Lonely Place, p.1

          
Midnight Is a Lonely Place


  BARBARA ERSKINE

  Midnight is a

  Lonely Place

  For A.J.

  who thought of the title

  ‘Where’er we tread ’tis haunted, holy ground’.

  Byron

  ‘C’était pendant l’horreur d’une profonde nuit …’

  Racine

  PROLOGUE

  Her hair was the colour of newly frosted beech leaves; glossy; rich; tumbling from its combs as he pulled her against him, his lips seeking hers. His skin was tanned by the sun and the wind, hers, naked against him, white as the purest marble.

  The heavy, twisted silver of the torc he wore about his arm cut into her flesh. She did not notice. She noticed nothing but the feel of his body on hers, the strength of his muscular thighs, the power of his tongue as he thrust it into her mouth as though he would devour her utterly.

  ‘Claudia …’

  He breathed her name as a caress, a plea, a cry of anguish, and then at last a shout of triumph as he lay still, shaking, in her arms.

  She smiled. Gazing up at the sky through the canopy of rustling oak leaves she was utterly content. The world had contracted into the one small clearing in the deserted woodland. Child and husband were forgotten. For this man in her arms, she was prepared to risk losing both; to risk losing her home, her position, life itself.

  He stirred, and, raising himself onto his elbows, he stared down at her, his face strangely blank, his silvery eyes unseeing.

  ‘Claudia …’ he whispered again. He rested his face between her breasts. It was the little death; the death a man sought; the death which followed coition. He smiled, reaching his fist into her hair, holding her prisoner, tracing the line of her cheek-bones, her eyelids, with his lips. What would this woman’s husband, a son of Rome, an officer of the legion, say if he ever found out? What would he do if he learned his wife had a lover, and that the lover was a Druid Prince?

  Contents

  Title Page

  Dedication

  Epigraph

  Prologue

  Chapter I

  Chapter II

  Chapter III

  Chapter IV

  Chapter V

  Chapter VI

  Chapter VII

  Chapter VIII

  Chapter IX

  Chapter X

  Chapter XI

  Chapter XII

  Chapter XIII

  Chapter XIV

  Chapter XV

  Chapter XVI

  Chapter XVII

  Chapter XVIII

  Chapter XIX

  Chapter XX

  Chapter XXI

  Chapter XXII

  Chapter XXIII

  Chapter XXIV

  Chapter XXV

  Chapter XXVI

  Chapter XXVII

  Chapter XXVIII

  Chapter XXIX

  Chapter XXX

  Chapter XXXI

  Chapter XXXII

  Chapter XXXIII

  Chapter XXXIV

  Chapter XXXV

  Chapter XXXVI

  Chapter XXXVII

  Chapter XXXVIII

  Chapter XXXIX

  Chapter XL

  Chapter XLI

  Chapter XLII

  Chapter XLIII

  Chapter XLIV

  Chapter XLV

  Chapter XLVI

  Chapter XLVII

  Chapter XLVIII

  Chapter XLIX

  Chapter L

  Chapter LI

  Chapter LII

  Chapter LIII

  Chapter LIV

  Chapter LV

  Chapter LVI

  Chapter LVII

  Chapter LVIII

  Chapter LIX

  Chapter LX

  Chapter LXI

  Chapter LXII

  Chapter LXIII

  Chapter LXIV

  Chapter LXV

  Chapter LXVI

  Chapter LXVII

  Chapter LXVIII

  Chapter LXIX

  Chapter LXX

  Chapter LXXI

  Chapter LXXII

  Chapter LXXIII

  Chapter LXXIV

  Chapter LXXV

  Chapter LXXVI

  Author’s Note

  Preview

  About the Author

  By The Same Author

  Copyright

  About the Publisher

  I

  ‘I hate being famous!’ Kate Kennedy confessed as she sat on the floor of her sister Anne’s flat. They were sharing a takeaway with a large Burmese cat called Carl Gustav Jung.

  When her biography of Jane Austen was published Kate had found herself a celebrity overnight. She was invited onto talk shows, she was interviewed by three national daily newspapers and two Sundays, she toured the libraries and bookshops of Britain and she met Jon Bevan, described by the Guardian as one of England’s most brilliant young literary novelists and poets. The reason for all this interest? What the Times Literary Supplement called her ‘sizzling exposé’ of Jane’s hidden sensuality; her repressed sexuality; the passion in those well-loved, measured paragraphs.

  Three weeks after meeting Jon she moved into his Kensington flat and her life changed forever.

  Her elder sister and former flatmate, Anne, had remained philosophical about being deserted. (‘My dear, it was bound to happen to one of us sooner or later.’) Herself a writer – a Jungian psychologist whose library, especially the Freudian bits, Kate had ransacked when writing Jane – she had watched with amusement as Kate coped with fame. And found it wanting.

  ‘If you hate it so much, bow out. Become a recluse. Decline to appear, my dear. Cultivate a certain boorishness. And wear a veil.’ Anne licked soy sauce off her fingers. ‘Your sales would double overnight.’

  ‘Cynic.’ Kate smiled at her fondly. ‘Jon says I’m mad. He loves it, of course.’

  ‘I can see Jon giving up writing in the end to become a media person,’ Anne said thoughtfully. She wiped her hands on a paper napkin stamped with Chinese characters and, wrapping her arms around her legs, rested her chin thoughtfully on her knees. ‘He’s bad for you, you know, Kate. He’s a psychic vampire.’ She grinned. ‘He’s feeding off your creative energy.’

  ‘Rubbish.’

  ‘It’s true. You’ve slipped into the role of housewife and ego masseuse without even realising it. You’re besotted with him! It’s months since you got back from Italy, but you haven’t even started writing the new book yet.’

  Startled by the vehemence of the statement Kate was astonished to find that she felt guilty. ‘I’m still researching.’

  ‘What? Love?’ Anne smiled. ‘And does Jon still think you’re mad to write about Byron at all?’

  Kate nodded fondly. ‘Yes, he still thinks I’m mad. He thinks Byron is too well known. He thinks I should have plumped for someone obscure – and not so attractive,’ she added as an afterthought. ‘But I’m glad to say my editor doesn’t agree with him. She can’t wait for the book.’ She shook her head wearily, giving Carl Gustav the last, carefully-saved prawn. She had been secretly pleased and not a little flattered to find that Jon was jealous.

  ‘Is that why you chose Byron? Because he’s attractive?’ Anne probed further.

  ‘That and because I love his poetry, I adore Italy and he’s given me a chance to spend wonderful months travelling round Europe to all the places he lived.’ Kate gathered up the empty cartons from their meal. ‘And he was a genuinely fascinating man. Charismatic.’ She was watching Carl Gustav who, having crunched his prawn with great delicacy, was now meticulously washing his face and paws. ‘Actually, I am ready to start writing now. My notes are complete – at least for the first section.’

  Anne shook her head. ‘I suppose I can think of worse ways of earning a living!’ She stood up and went to rummage in the fridge for a jar of coffee beans. ‘Tell me, are you and Jon still happy?’ she asked over her shoulder. ‘Really happy.’

  Kate nodded.

  ‘Getting-married happy?’

  ‘No.’ Thoughtfully. Then, more adamantly, ‘No, I don’t think either of us are the marrying type. At least not at the moment.’

  ‘But you can see yourself living with him for a long time.’

  There was a moment’s silence as Kate regarded her sister with preoccupied concentration. ‘Why do you want to know?’

  ‘I’ve been offered a job in Edinburgh. If I take it I’ll have to give up the flat.’

  ‘I see.’ Kate was silent for a moment. So, it was burning bridges time. ‘What about Carl Gustav?’

  ‘Oh, he’ll come with me. I’ve discussed it with him at great length.’ Anne bent down and caressed the cat lovingly. He had always been more hers than Kate’s. ‘He’s quite pro-Edinburgh, actually, aren’t you, C.J?’

  ‘And he approves of the job?’

  ‘It’s a good one. At the University. A big step up that dreadful ladder we are all supposed to mount unceasingly.’

  Kate turned away, astonished by the pang of misery that had swept through her at the thought of losing Anne. ‘Have you told Mum and Dad about this?’ she said after a minute.

  Anne nodded. ‘They approve and I can see them just as often from Edinburgh. It’s not as though it’s the end of the world, Kate. It’s only four hundred miles.’

  Kate smiled. ‘Well, if C.J. approves, and Mum and Dad approve, it must be OK. Get rid of the flat with my blessing and I’ll try and hang on to Jon for a bit!’

  But she didn’t.

  It was sod’s law, she supposed, that the day after Anne moved into her new flat in Royal Circus she and Jon had their first serious row. About money. Hers.

  ‘How much are they going to pay you?’ He stared at her in astonishment.

  She pushed the letter over to him. He read it slowly. ‘It’s an American contract! You must have known about this for months.’ He was hurt and accusing.

  ‘I didn’t want to tell you until it was definite. You know how long these things take –’ She had saved the news as a surprise. She had thought he would be pleased.

  ‘Christ! It’s iniquitous!’ Suddenly he was on his feet. ‘I get paid a paltry few hundred dollars’ advance for my last book of poetry and you –’ he spluttered with indignation, – ‘you, get that!’ He threw the letter down.

  She stared at him, shocked. ‘Jon – ’

  ‘Well, Kate. Be realistic. You write bloody well, but it’s hardly literature!’

  ‘Whereas your books are?’

  ‘I don’t think anyone would dispute that.’

  ‘No. I’m sure they wouldn’t.’ She took a deep breath.

  ‘Oh, hey, come on.’ Suddenly he realised how much he had hurt her. Silently he cursed his flash-point temper. He put his arm round her shoulders. ‘Look, you know me. All mouth. I didn’t mean it. You are bloody good. You do enough research! Take no notice. I was just miffed. No, let’s face it, jealous.’ He gave her a hug. ‘I might even go so far as to swallow my pride and borrow some of that money off you.’

  It was the first time she had heard even a hint of his financial problems.

  He managed it by making her feel guilty. She saw that later. It was a subtle manipulation; a masterpiece of manoeuvring. She pushed the money at him; threw it at him; gave it to him and lent it to him, with every cheque tacitly apologising that she made money while he did not. When the end came she had less than a thousand left in the bank and no prospect, though he had promised faithfully to repay her, of any more until her next royalty cheque in the summer.

  Even so, it was not the increasing pressure over money which came between them in the end. It was something sudden and quite unexpected.

  It was a cold, miserable day in early December when Jon found her in the Manuscript Gallery of the British Museum standing looking down at the flat glass case where an open book stared up at her, Byron’s crabbed, slanting hand, much crossed out, flowing across the page of the dedication to ‘Don Juan’. The atmosphere of the gallery, the air conditioning, the strange false light with its muted hum were giving her a headache. She had been concentrating too long and the unexpected tap on her shoulder had given her such a fright she let out a small cry before she turned and saw who it was and remembered Jon had said he would meet her for a quick coffee.

  The restaurant was, as usual, packed and as they sat down at a table near the wall she had no idea that this would lead to the outbreak of war. A couple of Japanese tourists, hung with cameras, inserted themselves, with bows and apologetic smiles, into the two spare chairs next to them. Coffee slopped into Jon’s saucer. A tall man, his own legs had folded with difficulty beneath the table as he pushed himself into the corner opposite Kate. His tray balanced in one hand, a letter in the other, his long, lanky frame and floppy hair lent him an air of languid elegance, something to which one look at the keen darting of his eyes as he stared around the room immediately gave the lie.

  Still thinking about Byron, she had not immediately sensed his excitement. ‘You’re coming with me, Kate!’ He picked up the letter which he had put on the table between them and waved it at her. There was a gleam of triumph in his eyes.

  ‘Coming with you? To the States?’ Giving him her full attention at last, Kate looked at him in surprise. ‘I can’t.’

  The expression of baffled anger which for a moment showed in his face confirmed her sudden suspicion that he was not going to understand.

  ‘Why?’ He was hurt and astonished by her response. He had thought she would be as excited as he was. He scowled. Why was it that she never reacted the way he expected? ‘This is the most important time of my life, Kate. My new novel being published in the States. A lecture tour. Publicity. Perhaps real money at last. Isn’t that what you want for me?’

  ‘You know it is.’ Her tone lost its defensiveness. She regarded him fondly. ‘I’m terribly pleased for you. It’s wonderful. The trouble is I am writing a book too, if you remember. And I can’t just swan off on a tour at the moment. My research is complete. My notes are ready. I am about to start writing. You know I can’t go with you. It’s out of the question.’

  ‘For God’s sake, Kate, you can start the book any time.’ Jon flung the letter down. He had counted on her; he could not visualise himself without her. ‘I’m not asking you to give it up. I’m not asking you for a vast amount of time. We would be in the States less than a couple of weeks.’

  Kate glanced at the Japanese woman sitting opposite her. Her eyes tactfully lowered, the woman was unwrapping a vast multilayered sandwich, from which tranches of ham and cheese and various highly-coloured salad leaves hung in festoons. The air filled suddenly with a mouthwatering aroma of cooked meats.

  ‘You know as well as I do that a couple of weeks is a hell of a long time when you are writing,’ she retorted crossly. Her headache had worsened, she felt tired and depressed and she could be as stubborn as he on occasions. ‘Don’t be an idiot, Jon. Anyway, you would get on much better without me.’ Somehow he had managed to make her feel guilty.

  ‘But I need you. Derek has got some terrific things lined up for me.’ Jon stubbed at the letter with his forefinger. ‘Telly in New York. And some wonderful parties. An interview with the New York Magazine and Publishers Weekly. You would meet everyone. He is expecting you to be there, Kate. We’re an item on the literary circuit – ’

  A wave of impatience swept over her. ‘I don’t care if your publisher is expecting me, Jon. I don’t care if the President of the United States is expecting me. You may be an item, but I am not. Nor am I a natty little accessory to complement your glittering image. If I tour New York it will be to publicise Lord of Darkness, not to be photographed smiling at your elbow. I’m sorry, but I’m going to stay here and work.’

  Jon shook his head. His voice was suddenly bleak. ‘You can’t stay in the flat, Kate.’

  ‘What do you mean? Of course I can.’ Even then she took no notice of the warning bell clanging away at the back of her head.

  He folded his arms, the familiar stubborn expression beginning to settle on his face softened by a hint of anxiety. ‘Derek has asked me to lend the flat to Cyrus Grandini while I’m away.’

  Kate was speechless for a moment. ‘And who, may I ask, is Cyrus Grandini?’ she spluttered at last.

  ‘Oh, Kate.’ He was impatient. ‘The poet. For God’s sake, you must have heard of him!’

  ‘No. And I don’t wish to share a flat with him.’

  His reply was apologetic. ‘There’s no question of sharing the flat. I’m sorry, Kate, but I have agreed he can have it for two weeks.’

  ‘But what about me? I thought it was my home too.’ She fought to keep the sudden panic out of her voice.

  ‘It is your home.’ He sounded angry rather than reassuring. ‘You know it is. Derek expected you to come to New York; so did I. I thought you would jump at the chance!’

  ‘Well, I haven’t.’

  ‘Then you will have to find somewhere else to go for a couple of weeks. I’m sorry.’

  So, that was it. She knew where she stood. A lodger. A lover. But not a partner.

  She stood up, scraping her chair back on the floor with such vehemence that the Japanese man next to her nearly dropped his pastry. He too leaped to his feet, climbing from behind the table so that she could squeeze inelegantly past him. A wave of frustration and anger and unhappiness swept over her. ‘If I go, I go for good,’ she stated flatly as her neighbour subsided once more into his chair and reached rather desperately for his pastry.

  ‘OK. If that’s the way you want it.’ He had turned away from her and sat, chin in hand, staring up at the horsemen from the Parthenon on the frieze on the wall above him, suddenly and shamefully near to tears. Correctly interpreting his rocklike stance the Japanese lady who had been preparing in her turn to rise and allow him to leave the table relaxed and took a large mouthful of sandwich.

  It was after eleven when he returned to the flat that evening.

 
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