“Is something wrong, El?” Rhys ventured.
“Don’t you think you should tell us about the woman who left lipstick all over the towels upstairs?”
Rhys’ hand froze with the egg halfway to his mouth. Then he replaced his fork and sat back in his chair. Ellen was glaring at him furiously while Owain looked from his sister to his father in astonishment.
“Yes, Ellen, I do think I should tell you about her,” Rhys managed to answer steadily. “In fact, I want you to meet her, but I thought we should have a little time just the three of us first.”
“Just how long has this been going on?” Ellen demanded.
“I don’t like that tone, Miss!” Rhys told her defensively. “I don’t have to account to you.”
“No?” Ellen raised her eyebrows. She had never looked so much like her mother, and Rhys lost his temper.
“No! Your mother has been dead for three years and she wouldn’t let me in her bed for a hell of a lot longer than that! It’s perfectly natural if I’ve found someone new. Most men would have found someone years ago – whether they were married to your frigid mother or not!”
As soon as it was out, Rhys regretted it, but it was too late. Ellen gaped at him, and Owain giggled from embarrassment. Then Ellen jumped to her feet and ran out of the kitchen. He heard her run up the stairs and slam the door of her room. “Bloody hell,” he muttered and glanced at Owain.
Owain shrugged his shoulders a little helplessly, but he seemed to be enjoying his father’s discomfort too, as if it made his own arrest a less serious offense.
With an oath, Rhys threw his napkin down beside his plate and went after Ellen. Standing outside the closed door of her room, he found himself trying to explain. “El, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to insult your Mum. I know she was a good woman. I never cheated on her. Not once in all our marriage. But you’ve got to understand, I’m — I’m not an old man yet. You and Owain aren’t going to be around forever —"
“Now I know why you want me to go to some trade school! Why you want me to find a husband of my own! You want me out of the house so you can — can have your affairs!”
“That’s not true! You know as well as I do that I’ve been begging you to go back to school for years. This has nothing to do with Marie. And Marie isn’t an affair. I’m going to marry her.”
Ellen answered with a wail of agony. Rhys looked about the narrow hall helplessly. This wasn’t at all the way he’d imagined their first day together in the beautiful cottage. He’d thought Ellen would be so pleased. She had been — until she saw the wine glasses.
It was unfair. They hadn’t even drunk any wine! And what if they had. Why shouldn’t he have a little happiness? What right did Ellen have to make him feel guilty about the best thing that had happened to him in years? Why did she have to begrudge him his happiness? “Ellen! Stop that this minute!”
She wept more loudly.
Rhys looked around again. Owain was slouching at the foot of the stairs watching him. He grabbed the handle of Ellen’s door and was astonished to find it was unlocked. He went into the pretty little bedroom with the flowery curtains framing a view over the garden to the bay. He had given Ellen this room because it was the prettiest in the cottage.
Ellen lay on her stomach, sobbing into her hands. Rhys took a deep breath and sat down on the edge of the bed. The bed had a soft mattress, and it sagged under his weight. He stroked Ellen’s shaking shoulders. “What are you so upset about, El? Don’t you want your father to be happy? Don’t I have a right to a little happiness after these last years?” He didn’t manage to keep the resentment out of his voice.
“Why does your happiness depend on getting rid of me? What’s so wrong with me? Why doesn’t anyone want me around? Not even my own father! Everybody just wants to get rid of me. I wish I’d never been born!”
“Oh, Ellen!” He pulled her up off the bed and into his arms, all his resentment against her dissolving again. “That’s not true! I don’t want to get rid of you. Nobody is talking about sending you away. This cottage is big enough for all of us. I want us to be a real family again, with Marie and you and Owain and me, all together.”
“But—but,” she sobbed miserably.
“Won’t you even give her a chance? She’s never had any children of her own. She wants to be friends with you, if you’ll let her. She lent me the car to come and fetch you, and she helped do the cottage up. She even found it for us. She isn’t going to throw you out.”
Ellen risked looking up at him, her breathing irregular and her eyes still wet. He wiped the tears away with his hand.
“Please, Ellen, give her a chance.”
Ellen swallowed uncertainly, and then she nodded.
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