Rival Attractions & Innocent Secretary

By: Penny Jordan

‘To take advantage of the current fashion for living in the country—’ Charlotte finished for him a little grimly.

‘Adam, where are you? I want you to sit here next to Felicity.’ Vanessa’s sharp voice broke into their conversation, as she gave Charlotte a false sweet smile and said nastily, ‘Heavens, Charlie, you’re not still boring on about poor Oliver, are you?’

Holding on to her temper, Charlotte forced herself to smile. She was bitterly regretting having ever accepted Vanessa’s invitation.

Most of the other guests were people she knew, but not very well. They were incomers to the area in the main, like Vanessa and Adam, most of them pleasant professional couples in their mid-to-late thirties. All of them had bought their properties via her, and, although she believed that she had given them as professional and skilled service as they would get anywhere, she had no illusions. Were they to put their properties on the market tomorrow, it would be Oliver Tennant they instructed and not her.

Dinner was a long drawn-out affair of several minute courses. Toying with hers, Charlotte suddenly thought longingly of a bowl of home-made soup, the kind that Mrs Noakes from Little Dean Farm made, along with some of her home-made rolls, eaten across the well-scrubbed farm kitchen table, while a couple of early lambs bleated noisily in front of the Aga, and Holly, the Noakeses’ now retired sheepdog, lay across her feet.

She was not cut out for the sophisticated pleasures of life, Charlotte recognised broodingly. She had nothing in common with any of these people here, who all seemed to live frantically busy lives. The women’s conversations were interspersed with references to the hopelessness of au pairs and the traumas of the pony club, the men’s with mysterious references to ‘insider dealing’ and the horrors of London’s traffic.

Moodily, Charlotte sipped spartanly at her wine. It was very rich and no doubt very expensive, but she wasn’t enjoying it.

Smiling automatically at the man on her right at the circular table Vanessa favoured, as he described his battle with the local council to get planning permission for a conservatory large enough to house his new swimming-pool complex, for no reason she could analyse Charlotte was suddenly impelled to turn her head and look across the table.

To discover Oliver Tennant looking right back at her was so unnervingly disconcerting that she took a deep gulp of her wine and promptly choked on it, causing Vanessa to frown at her and her embarrassment to increase.

Why had he been looking at her like that? she wondered, when her embarrassment had eased. As though he had been studying her for quite some time; as though he knew every thought passing through her head; as though he almost felt sorry for her…sorry… Anger lashed at her, making her stiffen her spine and bare her teeth in a smile that made the man sitting next to her watch her nervously and wonder what on earth he had said. He was forty years old, and found modern women very confusing—this one more than most.

The meal seemed to drag on forever. Charlotte ached to be able to leave, but good manners forced her to stay, listening politely to the conversations going on around her, as they left the dining-room to finish the evening with coffee in the drawing-room.

Vanessa was discussing the summer fête, an annual late summer event of the village.

Deep in her own thoughts, Charlotte was stunned when Oliver Tennant got up and walked over to sit down beside her. The amused smile that briefly lightened his expression as he sat down puzzled her. She had no idea that it was the look of shock-cum-apprehension on her own face that had caused it. Stiffly she made room for him beside her on the small pastel sofa.

‘Vanessa tells me that you’ve only recently taken over your late father’s agency,’ he began questioningly.

Grimly aware of how Vanessa had probably run her down to him, Charlotte corrected coldly, ‘Officially, yes, I took over on my father’s death, but in fact I have been running the agency for nearly six years.’ She turned her head so that she could look at him and added, ‘But I should have thought you would have known this. Surely, when you plan to open up in a new area, you check up on the opposition first?’

‘Yes, we do, but it was my partner who was responsible for this particular expansion. I’ve historically dealt with the London side of things, but earlier on this year we decided to split the partnership. He retained the country offices, while I retained the central London one…and this one.’

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