Rival Attractions & Innocent Secretary

By: Penny Jordan

She could imagine all too well what he was thinking: that her supposed feminist views were because she was not physically attractive enough to appeal to the majority of men. A man like him, so arrogantly self-assured of his masculinity, could never comprehend that there were women whose lives were perfectly happy without being built around some man.

As he extended his hand towards her, he said shockingly, ‘I’ve been wanting to meet you.’

His words stunned her, holding her immobile. Wanting to meet her…? Why? Guiltily her mind sped back to the afternoon, to her sneaky acquisition of his parking spot.

‘I’m afraid Charlie doesn’t approve of you at all,’ Vanessa was saying bitchily. ‘She seems to think that just because you’re successful you must be guilty of sharp business practice.’

The blue eyes studied Charlotte rather too shrewdly for her comfort for a moment, and then he said smoothly, ‘Well, naturally I’d deny such an allegation, although speaking of sharp practice—’

He was going to mention this afternoon, to amuse himself at her expense by recounting what she had done. Suddenly preternaturally sensitive, she felt the stinging colour in her face deepen. He was laughing at her, she knew. More amused than angered by her supposed antipathy towards him, enjoying her embarrassment.

Quite what would have happened if Adam had not suddenly come up to tell Vanessa that the hired staff were ready to serve dinner, Charlotte didn’t know.

As Vanessa, ignoring both Charlotte and Adam, turned away, taking Oliver Tennant with her, Charlotte discovered that she was trembling inwardly with a mixture of anger and impotence. Her anger was caused as much by Oliver Tennant’s patronising amusement at her expense as by Vanessa’s malice, and her frustrated impotence was the result of her own inability to escape from the role Vanessa had deliberately cast her into.

Vanessa had taken good care to paint her in colours to Oliver Tennant which, while having a basis in truth, were greatly exaggerated. Charlotte made no apology for her own belief that Oliver Tennant was cashing in on the property boom without any thought of how it would eventually affect their small community, but, given free choice, she would not have voiced those opinions so volubly or tactlessly in his presence. It was also true that there were certain aspects of the male sex which she personally found unappealing, but she was by no means the almost vigilante-like anti-men campaigner Vanessa had portrayed.

Unwittingly worrying at her bottom lip, as Adam escorted her through to the dining-room, Charlotte fumed over Vanessa’s deliberately derogatory description of her as a feminist. Vanessa had used the word as a malicious insult. Charlotte resented being classified as a specific ‘type’ under any name; she was an individual, and, if her upbringing and physical attributes made it impossible for her to mimic Vanessa’s cloying, clinging, supposedly ‘feminine’ manner with men, she preferred to think that it was because she had too much pride…too much self-awareness…too much self-respect to sink to Vanessa’s level.

If the male sex couldn’t see that beneath that sugary sweetness Vanessa was as corrosive as any acid, then they deserved everything they got.

Adam was saying something to her, clumsily trying to apologise, she recognised, her mood softening. Poor Adam. He most definitely did not deserve his atrocious wife. Sensing that he was genuinely concerned that she might be upset, she started to reassure him, and admitted, ‘I did rather over-react. I didn’t realise that the new estate agent was one of your guests.’

‘Vanessa invited him. She met him when she approached him to ask him to value this place.’ His face went dark red and he muttered uncomfortably, ‘I don’t know why she wants to move. I like this house…’

‘It’s all right, Adam,’ Charlotte told him, wanting to comfort him. ‘I’ve already recognised that most of the larger properties locally will probably go to the new agency. There’s enough business here for both of us,’ she added lightly, ‘and by opening up I suspect that Oliver Tennant has saved me the necessity of taking on a partner.’

‘He’s got a very good reputation,’ Adam told her earnestly, seizing her olive-branch. ‘He started up originally in London and then expanded—’

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