“Fiona.” Matthew gave her a brief peck on the cheek.
She looked tired and she looked sad. Her smile had not once reached her eyes since she’d come back from Heronsay. He’d tried to persuade himself that it was wholly due to Francis’s death, but he could no longer ignore the subtle changes in her the way she behaved on the rare occasions they were together, sometimes staring at him as if he were a stranger, sometimes looking at him with such a tragic expression his heart ached for her.
Since the New Year, she had not kissed him at all, save on the cheek.
“We need to talk,” he said, taking her hand and tucking it into his arm.
“What’s happened? Is something wrong?” she asked.
And that was another change in her, Matthew thought, this propensity for pessimism.
“Nothing,” he said hastily. “Let’s go to the park.”
They walked in silence down the steep slope of the High Street and on to Glasgow Green. The River Clyde was slate-grey today, choppy, the water running high.
“Matthew, there’s something I must tell you,” Fiona began.
He pressed her gloved hand.
“I know. You don’t love me.”
Fiona stopped in her tracks.
“Is it so obvious?”
With difficulty, Matthew smothered the desire to wrap her in his arms one last time. Best to get it over with.
“It’s been obvious since you returned from Heronsay. I don’t know what happened up there, but you’ve been different towards me ever since.”
They had come to a halt again, in the shelter of the new People’s Palace museum. A solitary tear sparkled on Fiona’s lashes.
“I have tried so hard to love you as you deserve, Matthew.” Which was possibly the most painful thing she’d ever said to him.
“I don’t want a wife who has to force herself to love me, Fiona.”
She reached up to touch his cheek.
“I am so sorry.”
He clenched his jaw.
“I don’t want your pity, I just want you to be happy, Fiona, and if I am not capable of making you happy, then it is best if we part.” Even though it will break my heart, he added silently.
Fiona’s lip trembled, but she nodded in agreement.
“You are a fine doctor and a wonderful man, Matthew Usher. You deserve to find happiness, and I hope and pray that one day you shall. She will be a very fortunate woman.”
The tear had trickled on to her pale cheek. Matthew looked away.
“Is there someone else?” he asked abruptly, the question he had sworn not to raise. “On Heronsay, I mean.”
“There was someone before I came to Glasgow. He asked me to marry him and I said no, because I thought I didn’t love him. I still thought that when I went back.”
“But now you are not sure?”
She flinched at the pain he could not keep from his voice, but held his gaze.
“I thought if I saw him, made my peace, then I would feel free to love you. Instead, I realised that love can’t be forced, Matthew. I’m sorry.”
“You love him?”
She shook her head, her face shuttering.
“It doesn’t matter now. He’s found someone else.”
“So we are both doomed to endure unrequited love. Cupid can be most capricious.” The bitter words were out before he could stop them, for doing the right thing was proving to be much more painful than he’d anticipated. But the brief stab of anger at her failure to love him was already receding. Matthew roused himself, and forced a smile.
“It is as well we both have our work to occupy us. Now I will be free to concentrate completely on the clinic and my research. That is some consolation. I am glad you were able to be so honest with me, Fiona. It cannot have been easy.”
“I am so very sorry, Matthew. I hope that we can remain friends.”
He shrugged, anxious to be alone.
He held out his hand. She took it. He could have kissed her, but he did not want to be reminded of what he would be missing. With a curt nod, Matthew strode off towards the gate without looking back.
* * * *
“John! What are you doing home? I thought you were taking prep this evening?” Ella pushed aside the bowl of wet goo which looked nothing like the light and fluffy cake mixture her mother made, and ran to her husband’s side. “Not that I’m unhappy to see you,” she said, twining her arms around his neck.
“You have flour on your cheek,” he said, smiling lovingly down at her.
She made a face.
“I was baking you a Victoria sponge, but it doesn’t look right. What have I said? Is something wrong?”
“A queer coincidence, that’s all.” Her husband’s expression became sombre. “Queen Victoria died earlier this evening at Osborne House.”
“Oh, dear. God rest her soul,” Ella said. “Poor lady, she was so ill. We should be thankful that her suffering has ended.”
“Indeed. There will undoubtedly be a period of national mourning. I’ve no idea yet what it means in terms of classes. Ella . . .” He broke off, unable to suppress his smile. “I know it’s probably not appropriate, but the Queen was a very old lady, and I have the most marvellous news to share with you. Come sit with me.”
He sank on to his favourite chair by the fire. Ella, as she so often did these days, eschewed its partner and curled up at his feet, resting her head on his knees.
“What is this marvellous news of yours?”
“My darling, you’ll never believe it.” John beamed. “As of next term, the school is prepared to enrol female pupils.”
“Oh, John! Do you think I . . .”
Her husband shook his head.
“I don’t think I know. The headmaster approached me today to ask if I’d object to him offering you a position.” John burst out laughing. “Object! I could have embraced him.”
Ella threw herself at her husband, almost toppling the pair of them out of the chair.
“Oh, John, do you mean it?”
“It will only be a small number of pupils, mind. And I have no idea what you’ll be teaching, except it certainly won’t be baking!”
Ella sniffed, crying and laughing at the same time.
“It is indeed the most wonderful news. Are you sure you won’t mind having a working wife?”
“What I want more than anything is a happy wife.”
“You already have that. I love you so much.”
“And I love you.”