The peacock blue dress didn't fit any more. Ginty smoothed her hand down the soft silk, remembering that magical night two years earlier when she and Patrick…
She hadn't been deliberately avoiding him. Not at first. In fact it had taken her most of the Easter holidays to work out that he wasn't coming to Trennels any more. Nick disappeared early in the morning, presumably to meet Patrick for a day of hawking or hacking. Sometimes it was Peter who sauntered across the fields to see his friend later in the day, camera slung around his neck. Occasionally the three youngest Marlows announced at breakfast that they were taking the train into Colebridge to meet Patrick and go to the cinema or drink milkshakes. Ginty had perfected an expression which she hoped gave the impression of an adult happy to send the children off on their juvenile expeditions, while she had much more important things to be getting on with at home.
In the summer holidays, there had been Monica to entertain, and then the trip to Paris for Grandmother's funeral, and all sorts of other distractions. So now it was Christmas, which meant Twelfth Night, which meant the Merricks' party and no way out of it.
Especially not since it was also Ginty's birthday. Not that she wanted to spend her birthday at Patrick's house, but the only other choice would be faking a headache and having Ann stay at home to look after her. Ginty decided she would rather risk her luck with Patrick.
At least this year her family had remembered the day. A gratifyingly large pile of presents and cards were waiting for her at the breakfast table, in marked contrast to last year's belated offerings, which even at the time had had the air of a decidedly token gesture. She still felt a stomach-churn of hurtful embarrassment when she recalled the deafening silence from Patrick on that occasion. She'd laughed it off, of course, telling Monica that it wasn't serious, that she hadn't been expecting anything. Alone in her room at night, Ginty hugged her hot water bottle to her chest and told herself fiercely that she hadn't cared for him either, repeating it often enough that she almost believed it.
'Ginty! We're all waiting.'
There was Rowan's voice, cool and officious. A flustered Mrs Marlow had asked everyone at breakfast whether they had anything to wear that night. Both twins had shrugged and even Ginty realised that she wasn't sure if her party dress still fitted. A consultation had been called in their mother's bedroom. Ginty picked up Doris's dress, her offering to the collective wardrobe. Whatever happened, she thought viciously, she wasn't letting Nicola wear it.
But Nicola was already holding up a slinky black evening gown that Ginty rather thought she was too young for.
'Where did that come from?' It hadn't been in The Chest, she was sure.
'Grandmother,' Rowan replied. 'Aunt Molly sent a pile of dresses to Mum when she cleared out the apartment in Paris.
'Can I try it, Mum?' Nicola spoke before Ginty had a chance to stake her claim.
Mrs Marlow narrowed her eyes but nodded at Nick who stripped off blouse and jeans unselfconsciously and let the dress fall over her head. Beaded and fringed and cleverly cut to elongate her sister's already lanky figure, it looked as though it had been made for her. Ginty's plea to be the next to try it died on her lips. It was no good pointing out that she was older and it was her birthday. Nothing was ever fair in this family.
Lawrie laid claim to the blue dress. Rowan produced the same navy frock she'd been wearing for years. Ann had a pale peach Laura Ashley number that Ginty wouldn't be seen dead in.
'I don't suppose it matters what I wear, anyway,' she said casually.
Rowan rolled her eyes.
'Don't be silly, Ginty. I'm sure we'll find something for you here.' Mrs Marlow told Nicola to get changed before she put her finger through the delicate old chiffon then began to sort through the other dresses on the bed.
'It's only my birthday, after all.'
'Ginty, you're seventeen years old. It would be nice if you stopped behaving like a child.'
She flushed. Just because she should be the one getting the fabulous dress, not the one being told off.
'There are lots of pretty things,' Ann put in kindly. 'What about this?'
Ginty surveyed the gold sequinned number her sister was holding up with a profound distaste.
'There's been a crisis with the can-apes,' Patrick announced cheerfully as he greeted them. 'Family hold back. And the drinks are being rationed.'
Nicola replied first. 'Mrs Bertie's crisis or Nellie's?'
'I didn't dare ask.' His hazel eyes gleamed with amusement as if the two of them were sharing a private joke. 'But there's plenty of sandwiches and pop left over from the kids' tea if you want.'
Ginty opened her mouth to make a remark about never being too old to enjoy jelly and ice cream but the words died on her lips as she watched Patrick's hand tangle into Nicola's. So that's how it was. It wasn't that it was a surprise exactly, but she wished someone had bothered to say.
And now the others had all disappeared into the hall and she was stuck with Helena Merrick, who was looking her up and down as though she'd crawled out from an unwelcome rock. Ginty resisted the temptation to turn tail and run, determined to show that she had nothing to be ashamed of. At least her mother had found her something decent to wear. The soft silvery grey dress draped across Ginty's cleavage in a way that she hoped was sophisticated and glamorous. She had applied her false eyelashes with lots of dark smoky eye makeup, and a dash of deep red lipstick that she felt added at least a couple more years to her seventeen.
'You'll have to take those shoes off.'
Ginty looked down at her favourite red stilettos. Rowan had warned her that they weren't suitable for the ancient floors of Mariot Chase and Mrs Marlow had frowned her disapproval, but Ginty had ensured there wasn't time for her to change before they left.
'Or you could stand on that rug all night.' Mrs Merrick turned to welcome another guest, leaving Ginty fuming and foolish as she kicked off her heels.
'Beauty in distress?'
Ginty's eyes rose, taking in the impeccably cut charcoal grey trousers, the lavender striped shirt, the broad chest, the hint of a five o'clock shadow, the sharply-cut cheek bones, the impossibly blue eyes and deep conker-brown sweep of hair. Suddenly this was looking like a rather good party after all.
'I didn't meet the uniform requirements,' she admitted.
He smiled swiftly. 'I don't suppose you did.'
'Virginia Marlow.' She held out her hand.
He took it in his warm grasp and held it for a moment longer than necessary. 'So you're the one Aunt Helena's been warning me about.'
Ginty scowled. 'It's none of her business.'
He laughed. 'So you didn't corrupt her whiter-than-white son? No,' he continued when she would have interrupted. 'Don't explain it to me, I beg you. I am fully willing to believe you innocent of all malice, but you must stop frowning.' He touched his finger lightly to her forehead. Ginty caught her breath.
'That's better. But if you're going to dance with me, Virginia, you'll need to manage an actual smile.'
Her lips curved upwards instinctively and she stepped a little closer towards him, laying a hand on his arm. 'If you're going to dance with me, you'll need to watch your feet.'
Strong arms encircled her waist and lifted her off the ground. 'Stand on my toes,' he murmured. 'Then you'll be safe.'
Ronnie steered them both competently around the dance floor, carefully shielding Ginty's unprotected feet from the stray kicks of enthusiastic but incompetent locals. She was more than content to lean her head against his shoulder and catch only occasional glimpses of disapproving parents and sisters. Patrick and Nicola had returned to the party but if she had hoped to provoke a spark of jealousy there, she was disappointed. Instead there was an unmistakeable expression of relief on Patrick's face as he watched Ginty twirl elegantly in Ronnie's arms. Then Nicola said something, and he bent his head, eyes lighting up in swift amusement.
'Wicked girl,' Ronnie muttered. 'Thinking of someone else while you are dancing with me.'
Ginty looked up at him, a challenge sparkling in her eyes. 'I wouldn't if you distracted me properly.'
His brows narrowed. 'What kind of distraction were you thinking of?'
She bit her lip and glanced swiftly around the room. 'You could kiss me,' she offered.
A muscle began to twitch in his jaw. 'Not here, I couldn't.'
'What a pity,' Ginty said, laying her head down again and settling into the rhythm of the dance once more.
He laughed. 'I am beginning to think my Aunt Helena was right. Nice boys do need to be warned about girls like you.'
'Are you a nice boy?'
Ronnie twirled her round then pulled her in close so that her whole body was pressed up tightly against his. 'Never.'
'Has anyone seen Gin?' Peter enquired disinterestedly. 'Ma was asking. She thinks we should be leaving soon.'
'It's only just gone midnight,' protested Nicola, carefully not looking over at Patrick doing his duty by some county personage's daughter.
'And some of us have to be up at six,' Rowan pointed out.
'I could walk home,' Nicola offered.
'So could Ginty,' said Peter. 'I expect the Merrick boys would be happy to escort you.'
'Merrick boys?' asked Lawrie loudly, waving her glass in Patrick's general direction. 'I thought there was only one.' She squinted and looked again. 'Or two?'
'Ronnie Merrick, you clot,' Peter told her, nudging her elbow. 'The one who was wrapped all round Ginty earlier.'
'He doesn't seem to be here either,' said Nicola, after checking the room carefully. 'You don't think…'
'Damn the girl,' said Rowan. 'Now we'll have to send out a search party before Mum notices.'
'We could just let her notice.'
Rowan gave Nicola a withering glance. 'She'd do the same for you, you mean?'
Nick shrugged. 'It was only a thought. Where should we look?'
'I'll look outside. You'd better grab Patrick and find out where Ronnie's room is. Peter, you can check downstairs.'
'What about Lal?'
They all turned to glance at Lawrie, happily waltzing with herself and talking to a maraschino cherry on a stick.
'I think we'd better leave her here and hope for the best.'
The moon was large and light, a gilded ball hanging serenely in the soot-black sky. Ginty attempted a suitably romantic remark about it when Ronnie appeared at her side.
He glanced up briefly. 'Hmm. Here.' He handed over her shoes and draped a borrowed coat over her shoulders. 'That should do it. Come on.'
It was exciting to have him take her hand in his grasp and lead her out into some secret dark place. Ronnie pulled her to a halt and turned her so that her back was against the wall. He placed one hand on either side of her shoulders and leaned down. Ginty could see the whites of his eyes and the gleam of his teeth.
'Ready for some distraction, Virginia?' She loved how grown-up that sounded. Perhaps she would tell the others to stop calling her Ginty. She was seventeen. High time she abandoned childish nicknames.
Ronnie's smile drew nearer. Ginty held her breath and waited. She'd been kissed before often enough, but they had all been teenage boys, learning as they went along, just like she was. She'd always enjoyed the idea of being kissed but now Ronnie was showing her exactly how much she could enjoy the reality of it. Instinctively, she raised her hands, pulling him closer against her. He grinned and shifted his hips suggestively.
She hoped she didn't look too shocked. She didn't want him to know just how inexperienced she really was. When he pulled away slightly, she followed, boldly pressing her chest against his.
'You're sure, then?' he muttered.
She leaned up to kiss him again hoping that he wouldn't be able to hear the sudden thumping of her heart. 'Quite sure,' she said, as much for her own benefit as his.
The draping of the silver dress provided no obstacle to Ronnie's expert hands. He slipped cold fingers inside the soft fabric, swallowing her startled objections with another devastating kiss. Ginty determinedly ignored all the voices of her conscience, especially the ones that sounded like her sister Rowan at her most coldly disdainful. Instead she let Ronnie reach round to undo her bra.
And suddenly it all became rather tawdry. Ronnie wasn't quite as skilful or practised as she had been imagining and there was a painful moment when Ginty feared her dress had ripped irretrievably. Her elbow hit an inconveniently placed windowsill, causing her to yelp and jab her finger into the underside of his jaw. He muttered something violent under his breath, she tried to pull back but only succeeded in treading on his foot, whereat he gave up and swore loudly.
A cool reply came from somewhere beyond the stable block. It took Ginty a moment to realise that Rowan's voice wasn't inside her head. Hastily she rearranged her bra and pulled her dress back up, tucking the torn flap inside and covering it all with the borrowed coat before stepping out into the yard.
Rowan eyed her up with one swift, appraising glance. 'Mum's looking for you.'
Ginty flushed, hating how childish that made her sound. She turned back to Ronnie, pleading with him to come with her, to make it more than just a fumble in the dark, but his dark head remained resolutely turned away. Rowan merely folded her arms and jerked her head back in the direction of the house.
Patrick and Nicola were coming down the stairs, still holding hands and looking very pleased with themselves indeed.
'There she is!' announced Patrick, rather as if he'd done something very clever in spotting her.
Nicola grinned inanely. 'Did Rowan find you? Mum wants to leave.'
Ginty ignored them, stalking across the soft oak floor in her stilettos, hoping to leave a trail of footprints that would serve them all right for the beastly injustice of everything. She chucked the coat Ronnie had borrowed for her in the general direction of the cloakroom and headed for the drinks table. She didn't care who thought she was too young, she needed a stiff drink.
But before she got more than three steps into the Hall, her mother had collared her.
'No, Ginty, we're leaving. Ann, Lawrie…' Mrs Marlow started counting heads. 'Oh, there's Peter. Has anyone seen Nicola?'
'Said she'd wait for us by the car,' Peter supplied helpfully.
'Oh, good. I expect Rowan's brought it round to the front by now.' There was a flurry of farewell kisses and last minute things that simply must be passed on now and promises to call again in the morning and eventually they were outside.
Ginty scanned the yard furtively, hardly knowing whether she was hoping for a glimpse of Ronnie or not. What she saw was Patrick and Nicola, standing on the low wall around the garden, arms linked, and faces turned up to the sky.
'Falling stars,' commented Rowan, following their gaze.
'Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket,' sang Lawrie tunelessly.
'Make a wish,' Peter suggested.
Ginty watched the bright streaks of light and wondered what was worth wishing for. Not Ronnie. Certainly not Patrick. Nothing boring like A-Levels. If anyone asked, she would say that she wished for something terribly selfless and noble, like world peace. She couldn't admit to the things she really wanted, not even to herself. To be loved, admired, appreciated. To be older, more glamorous, have more money.
Instead, as Patrick's dark head bent down towards her sister, and as Ronnie slipped unobtrusively back into the house, without so much as a glance in Ginty's direction, there was only one desire in her mind.
She wanted to go home and pretend that this whole, awful day had never happened.