Francis and Ilke had a bad year. They haven't seen each other for 10 months and Francis has some serious apologizing to do.
He was sitting on the settee staring at the fire. He rose when she entered and tried to kiss her cheek. She twisted away and sat on the window seat. “Francis.”
“Ilke.” He sank back down on the settee again.
Ilona waited, clasping her hands together on her lap. She watched his face and saw the thoughts working their way across it.
“I don’t know where to start,” he said.
“The beginning is usually a good place,” she replied.
“I’ve been a jackass.”
“Yes.” She found it hard to be so brusque with him. She stared at her hands knowing that, if she looked at him she would weaken.
“I should have never said what I did, or even thought like that. I could see how much I hurt you yet I did it anyway.”
“Yes, you did.”
“It must have taken a lot for you to go back to Catterick and I should have acknowledged that.”
“It did and you should have.”
He sighed and ran his hand through his hair. “I was stupid and proud and foolish. I thought if I shut myself off from everyone, things wouldn’t hurt so badly. I kept telling myself that I was doing the right thing because if people stopped caring about me they wouldn’t get hurt.”
He looked at her. “It was the wrong thing to do because it’s been the worse year of my life and the longest. I can’t believe how stupid I’ve been. I care for you, Ilke, I care for you more than I should but I can’t make any promises because I don’t know if I’ll get out of this war alive. I can’t put you through that again and that’s why I behaved the way I did. It was the wrong thing to do but, by the time I’d realized that, it was too late for me to go back and change things, because the damage had been done….has been done. I look at you now and I just see this cold anger and, God knows, I deserve it.”
She clenched her jaw. She felt the tears return and stared up at the ceiling.
“Will you forgive me, Ilke? Can we start again? I miss you so much.”
“I don’t know. I really don’t know if I can. What you did was selfish, no matter how you try to dress it up as noble self-sacrifice.” She looked at him. “How do you think I felt, Francis? Or Harry? Or your parents? It would have almost been better if you were dead. The fact that you deliberately shut yourself away hurt so much. It was hard enough grieving for Ian but he was dead, there was no uncertainty. He was gone. Grieving for someone who is still alive is much harder. Grieving over someone who has deliberately walked away from you is a terrible thing to live with.” She curled her hands in her skirt. “It wasn’t a great year for me, either. I can’t tell you how much time I spent trying to work out what I’d done wrong and every time, I came up with nothing. Then, you have the nerve to turn up here, say you’re sorry and expect me to forgive and forget.” She stood up and stared out of the window, not wanting him to see her tears. “If it wasn’t for our families, I’d ask you to leave.”
“Ilke,” his voice was hoarse. “I’m so sorry.”
She winced at the raw pain in his voice. Her jaw hurt and her throat was tight. She waited.
Ilona wiped her eyes and stared, through her tears, at the leaden grey sky. She ached
with longing as the scent of his aftershave stole across the room.
“God, Ilke, say something, please.”
She wished that she did not love him. She wished that she did not want to turn around and fall into his arms.
“I miss you so much.” There was no trace of the old, confident Francis in that voice, “Please…”
She took a deep breath and turned slowly. “I miss you too,” she whispered, her voice caught in her throat.
She nodded, weakly. “Yes.”
He rose and was across the room in an instant. “I’m sorry for hurting you. I’m sorry for turning my back on you and for saying what I did, and for not saying what I should have said.” He took her face between his hands. “I don’t want us to be like that again. I need you too much, darling. You are my refuge and my sanity and I’ve been so damned miserable without you.”
She did cry then and closed her eyes as he kissed her eyelids and held her. She felt him trembling as his hands moved through her hair and trailed along her damp cheeks. She looked at him, touching his face. “I don’t want to go through that again, either. You’re not the only one who was unhappy, Francis.”
He kissed her in sweet, gentle sips. She could not stop crying and he laughed, “I didn’t mean to make you cry, darling.”
“I’m sorry, I can’t help it.” She kissed him back, reveling in the scent and the nearness of him.
“Merry Christmas,” he whispered against her mouth. “I promise I won’t treat you like that again, darling. I won’t hurt you again.”“See that you don’t.”