When Molly Kirby became engaged to Ned Halloran she never had to worry about the risk of marrying a soldier. She was one too. He was an infantryman and she was a Royal Engineer. She resigned her commission on marriage to limit separation.
The birth of Dan was their first big worry. She very nearly lost him and was unable to have any more children. He was premature and it was several days before the doctors were confident that he would live and, almost more importantly, that he would not be physically or mentally impaired. Because they might have lost him and because Molly would never bear any more children meant that Dan was very special to them. That did not mean, as he started to develop, that they spoilt him. Certainly he was deeply loved but neither parent would stand any nonsense.
It was clear from an early age that Dan was devoted to Molly but that he also loved Ned. In fact, that love developed into hero worship. 'My Daddy's a soldier' was only part of it. Dan copied his father and always wanted to 'help' him doing various chores at the week end. That could be difficult when there were sharp tools about the place.
Dan missed Ned badly when his father's battalion was deployed twice to Iraq and later to Afghanistan. Molly naturally missed Ned too but getting Dan back onto an even keel helped her overcome her own sadness.
When Ned was killed on his second tour in Afghanistan Molly was devastated. Both families rallied despite their own misery but the hardest part for Molly was explaining to six year-old Dan that he would never see his beloved father again.
Dan took it badly. He went off his food and poor Molly had to cope with his sleeplessness and misery as well as her own. Dan would accept no comfort except from her. The bond they had developed while he was a baby and toddler became stronger.
If Ned's commanding officer had been able to he would have allowed Molly to keep her married quarter as long as she needed to find somewhere else to live. But rules are rules and civil servants are past masters at ensuring they are obeyed so that after Ned's funeral, which the battalion sadly organised with all the tradition and experience it had, Molly's first aim was to find a new place for she and Dan to live.
Her parents wanted her to come home and start looking from there but she had a part time job as a support worker at Pitsbury hospital which she enjoyed and which helped to take her mind off Ned's death. She was loth to give it up. Added to that she felt that the intensity of her mother's love and concern might be counter-productive.
Eventually she found a pretty cottage at Netherbourne which itself was a small and pretty village away from the main roads but only twenty minutes away from the hospital. Dan had to change school though but neither of them found that a problem. In fact, a new school, a new house and new friends helped Dan overcome his grief.
Molly was an outgoing friendly person and the villagers were not stuffy so that they soon settled in and began to make friends.
Ned had taken out two life insurance policies. One was on his and Molly's lives. The other was to provide for Dan's education. The latter was designed to top up the army's education allowance for him to go to boarding school so that Dan's education would not be interfered with if Ned was posted overseas on an accompanied tour. It also provided for the army education allowance in the event of Ned's death. Molly therefore had few financial worries. She still needed to work though which she did.
In the neighbouring valley to the west at Upper Compton another young family had also suffered early bereavement. James and Hilary Bentwater had gone two hundred yards down the road to a drinks party leaving their two and a half year-old daughter, Gina, with a babysitter. When they returned Hilary suddenly said she felt awful and went straight to bed. James ran the babysitter home and returned to find Hilary looking very unwell and groaning in pain. When he asked where the pain was she said it was everywhere.
James did not like the look of it and rang for an ambulance. Hilary died four hours later in hospital. The post-mortem gave the reason as blood poisoning and James, although he could see no reason for it, had to accept it.
He took leave from his job as a chartered accountant chiefly to look after Gina. She was too young really to understand what had happened other than that she would never see her mother again. That was enough. Hilary had been a very good mother: firm but loving, understanding and patient. It was clear to James that he had to find Gina a substitute quickly.
He was lucky. He found a nanny through an agency and she turned out to be perfect. Her name was Denise. She was a round, cheerful but thoroughly sensible and practical girl aged twenty-three. Gina loved her from the outset and Denise returned that love. James became fond of her too but no more. She was a thoroughly good nanny and a very nice person but there was nothing they had in common and physically Denise had no appeal for him at all. Nevertheless it was a happy family and Gina thrived.
Inevitably friends tried to pair both Molly and James off with various people but without success. Neither was in any hurry to find a new mate and, once the original misery of bereavement was over, quite enjoyed their new lives and semi-independence. Molly was more tied than James because she did not have a nanny. The thought of employing one had never crossed her mind.
Two years after Ned's death Dan started at prep school. Even though it was not that far away Molly decided that he would get more out of the place by being a weekly boarder rather than a day boy. That meant that he could come home after games on a Saturday afternoon and not have to be back until quarter to nine on a Monday morning.
Dan felt at home there straight away. He enjoyed his work and was thrilled to be able to play football every afternoon. He started making friends immediately, Rob Mason and Guy Graham becoming particular ones. Mr and Mrs Winston, the headmaster and his wife, were strict but he liked them and he really, really liked the school nurse, Mrs Edson. When she took bath nights they were fun with everybody laughing but she would not allow splashing or ducking because it made the floor soaking wet.
Molly missed him and really felt rather lonely for the first time since Ned's death, not that she let it get her down. On the other hand, if she was invited out to drinks or supper mid-week she did not have to organise a babysitter. She could just go. She began to throw small informal supper parties of her own as well. She also bought herself two puppies, a springer spaniel and a wire-haired dachshund, which she named Bella and Susie.
The vicar and his wife, Barry and Sophie Parkinson, were keen Bridge players and ran a weekly evening of two tables. Molly and Ned had played but Molly had never really rated herself as much good even though she enjoyed the game so she was delighted when Sophie invited her one evening to make up numbers. After that she played quite often although not regularly.
That was how Molly met James. He was an old friend of Barry's and, rather like Molly, was invited to play on occasions. Molly was introduced to him on arrival but was not on his table to start with. She was partnered with him for the second rubber which preceded a light buffet supper. They managed quite well playing strictly by the bidding conventions as neither knew each other's propensities. They chatted to each other over supper and that was that. It was well over a month before they met again.
At the second meeting James asked her whether she knew of a good riding school because Gina had expressed keenness. In fact Molly did, not that Dan had shown any interest. Football, rugby and cricket were his outdoor activities and during the school holidays he, Rob and Graham were two or three at a time at each other's houses playing those games. She gave James the name of the riding school and forgot about it.
Denise had never ridden but as she had to drive Gina to riding lessons she decided to give it a try and found she enjoyed it, all of which led in the end to James, being the devoted and almost besotted father, buying Gina a pony and Denise a horse so that she could accompany Gina. They were stabled at a nearby farm and Denise, assisted when not at school by Gina, looked after them.
After several bridge parties at which Molly and James developed a liking for each other James invited her out to dinner. They went to an Italian restaurant in Pitsbury where they had an excellent meal and thoroughly enjoyed the evening. In return Molly invited James and Gina to Sunday lunch in ten days time.
That went well. Despite a three year gap in age Dan and Gina appeared to get on quite well and all four enjoyed a walk in the afternoon together. Gina had been rather wary of the dogs up to that point but when they became immersed in the walk and showed no further interest in her she relaxed and enjoyed them.
Both children were a little shy initially of the other's parent but when Molly started to talk about riding with Gina and James about cricket and rugby with Dan that shyness vanished. Afterwards when each parent asked their child what they thought of the other they both replied with a shrug, "OK". Dan added though, in a tone of awe, "Mr Bentwater played rugby for Oxford against Cambridge."
Over the months Molly and James's friendship continued to develop. Neither was consciously looking for a new mate. Three years later both of them still missed their original ones but were reasonably contented with their lives.
James had become a member of the Worshipful Company of Vintners while working in the City. He had always taken Hilary to the annual dinner-dance. He knew it would be a major step in his relationship with Molly but decided to ask her to come this year.
She realised it too and gently declined. "It was very sweet and kind of you to ask me, James, and I'm honoured and touched but it is a major event and, certainly to my way of thinking, is something you should reserve for somebody special."
"I think you are special."
Molly smiled gently at him. "Thank you, James, but I don't think I'm that special. It almost implies some commitment and I'm still not ready for that."
James noted the sincerity in her eyes and nodded ruefully. "I understand," he said. "I don't think I'm ready for commitment either actually."
"Give it time, James dear. We'll both realise it if and when we are ready."
They continued to do things together and with the children who remained firmly non-committal about each other. Neither was taken with the other's interests. They did not even have any favourite music in common.
Slowly Molly and James grew closer. Molly realised that James was physically attracted to her as well. That could not help but please her but she was far from overwhelmed by it. James did not have Ned's physique but she supposed that he might be reasonable in bed. She wondered about trying sleeping with him but did not want to give him any false ideas. The last thing she wanted was merely to become his mistress even with overtones of love. On the other hand he had invited her to that Livery Company party which she could hardly believe was just an excuse to get her into bed. She had been right. It was an invitation to commitment. She decided that before anything else they had to consider their children and that she must broach the subject with him. She waited until he took her out to dinner again.
"James dear," she said as they lingered over the remains of their wine, "if we were childless I suspect that we might have got together by now."
"Yes," he replied firmly. "I'd still like to."
She smiled. "Thank you," she said softly, "but what the kids think and feel is still very important."
"I seem to get on reasonably with Gina but there's no warmth."
"Maybe not but surely that could grow."
"It could but I get the impression that she has transferred her 'Mummy love' to Denise."
"True. There's no doubt that they're very close but at some stage Denise is going to leave. She already seems pretty attached to young Craig in the village. So at some stage Gina's going to be hurt. That'll be the second time in her young life but I imagine that she's still young enough to cope with it."
Molly wondered but moved on. "I'm not worried by Dan. The fact that you were an Oxford rugby Blue seems to be enough for him."
James smiled. "I like him and he seems all I could ever have wanted in a son. I think we are friends."
Molly nodded but was still deep in thought about Gina. It could be a long hard flog to win her affection and Dan was indifferent about her. Could that sour her relationship with James? Dan's happiness was vitally important to her. It might be a help if Denise got hitched to her Craig but until she began to have children she would still be able to look after Gina.
James decided to push his luck. "Molly, will you marry me?" he asked.
Molly shook her head and reached for his hand. "I'd like to," she said quietly. "I really, really would but I'm still worried about Gina. I'd hate for her unhappiness to come between us."
James's hand closed round hers. He did not look happy but still managed a smile. "Where there's life there's hope," he said. "But make no mistake, Molly. I'm in love with you and I will marry you one day."
"Yes, James. I hope so: very much."