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Rival Attractions & Innocent Secretary

By:Penny Jordan

Rival Attractions & Innocent Secretary
Penny Jordan

       Rival Attractions & Innocent Secretary Accidentally Pregnant


CHAPTER ONE


AS CHARLOTTE turned the corner and swung her ancient Volvo estate car  into the square which, when not in use as a market, served the town as  its most central parking area, she cursed under her breath.

The car park was full; of course, it would have to be when she was  running late like this. Not that Paul would mind. But she did. She hated  it when she found herself running behind schedule.

Today had been an exceptionally busy day-one of her busiest perhaps  since she had taken over the running of the estate-agency business her  father had established here in this small Lincolnshire country town,  almost six years ago now.

Initially, when her father had first become ill, she had just stepped in  on a temporary basis, but as the months had passed and it had become  clear that her father was never going to be well enough to return to  work, she had unwillingly given in to the emotional pressure he had put  on her to give up her plans for living and working in London,  independent of his rather dominating personality and the confines of a  small country town where everyone knew everyone else's business.

Her father hadn't been an easy person to live with, and he had certainly  not been easy to work for. Although nominally Charlotte was in charge  of the business, her father had demanded a full nightly report on  everything that was happening, often criticising her to the point where  she had had to fight to hold on to her temper, and to remind herself  that he was a very sick man, who had to be humoured and cosseted. Now  her father was dead, and there was really no reason why she shouldn't  sell up and leave. That was the trouble with growing older, she  reflected, as she searched the square for a parking place. You became  reluctant to make changes. The impetus which would once have taken her  back to London was gone; she had become too used to small-town life and  the last six years had developed in her a reluctant loyalty to the  business which her father had founded. She liked dealing with people.  She enjoyed the independence of being her own boss, of being able to  make her own innovations and alterations. In the last few months of his  life, her father had been unable to take any interest in the business  whatsoever, and since his death she had experienced an odd  disorientating sense of inertia, which made her reluctant to make any  radical changes in her life.

Let's face it, she told herself, you've become a small-town person … set in your ways … used to a certain routine.

She was almost twenty-eight years old, mature enough to appreciate what she could and could not have from life.

Ahead of her she saw brake lights illuminate one of the parked cars.  Someone was leaving the car park. And then, as the driver started to  reverse, she saw the car on the other side of the car park, patiently  waiting to reverse into the soon-to-be-empty spot. Only, oblivious to  the waiting car, the one pulling out was reversing in its  direction-leaving the emptying space unprotected. If she was quick, she  could drive straight into it. She gnawed on her bottom lip, knowing that  the other driver would have every right to be furious, but telling  herself virtuously that on this one occasion her need was very much the  greater.

She had to see Paul to settle the last of her father's financial  affairs. The rest of her week was fully booked up. Their hitherto very  quiet part of the country was suddenly being invaded by city dwellers in  search of rural escapism. Over the last month she had been besieged  with enquiries from Londoners wanting to explore the possibility of  moving out to the country. While this was good for business, it had its  negative side. The town was only small; house prices were shooting up,  which meant that local young people, first-time home buyers, and those  elderly couples who had lived in tied properties throughout their  working lives, were now being priced out of the property market.

Charlotte was still frowning over this as she quickly nipped into the now-vacant parking space.

If she was quick, she would be out of her car and on her way to Paul's  office on the other side of the square before the affronted driver could  object to her stealing of his or her spot.

Slightly shamefacedly, she opened her car door and got out.

She was wearing her normal working uniform of a long-line box-pleated  skirt, a shirt, and a thick woollen jumper over the top of it. In the  back of the Volvo were her wellies and Barbour-essential items for life  in the country, especially when her job took her to outlying properties  to do valuations. Spring had been slow in coming this year, and  Charlotte had long ago discovered that short skirts and high heels,  elegant though they might look, were not very practical garb when it  came to crawling around measuring floors and walls.                       
       
           



       

Had anyone asked her to describe her own looks, she would have said  offhandedly that she was a little over average height, probably slightly  too thin; that her face, with its high cheekbones and thick, straight  eyebrows, was not softly feminine in the way that men liked; that her  shining waterfall of glossy dark hair lacked sensual allure; and that  her eyes, grey rather than blue, saw things a little too clearly to  appeal to the majority of the male sex.

Her mother had died when she was five years old; her father had not  remarried, and he had brought Charlotte up on his own, never really  allowing her to forget that she was not the son he would have preferred,  and yet somehow underlining at the same time that she was not the kind  of feminine, appealing daughter he would have liked.

Because of this, she had grown up with a direct, uncompromising manner  towards other people of both sexes, and a protective, almost stark  belief that she was not the kind of woman who was likely to appeal to  men, and so, for that reason, she might as well learn to be independent  and like it.

As the years had passed and she had seen some of the marriages of her  schoolfriends disintegrate under the pressures of modern life, she had  watched, helped and commiserated as those friends had rebuilt their  broken lives, and she had wondered if, after all, she was not better off  than them. She might never have known the joys of loving and being  loved, but neither had she experienced the pain of committing herself to  another human being only to have that commitment rejected.

She had seen too often what it did to her sex when that rejection  came-how hard it was for a woman who based her whole identity and life  on the man she shared that life with to establish a separate,  independent identity and life when the relationship was over.

Women were their own worst enemies, she thought. They loved too  generously, made themselves too vulnerable. Men seemed to have an  inbuilt ability to protect themselves from the kinds of hurts that women  suffered. She had lost count of the number of times she had seen  couples she had thought of as being happily married break up, the man  walking away to a new life, leaving the woman brokenhearted, alone,  often with enormous emotional and financial problems to cope with-not to  mention the children of the marriage.

Charlotte was an intelligent woman; she knew that there were men who  suffered just as much as women, but by and large the ratio of suffering  seemed to her to be weighted far too heavily in her sex's direction.

She had been engaged once, briefly, but, when her father had become ill  and she had had to return home, Gordon had become petulant and  irritable, resentful of her decision to put her father's health first.  When he had given her an ultimatum-her father or him-she had seen quite  clearly how their lives together would be, how she would eventually  become the victim of his desire to dominate their relationship  emotionally.

There had been no passion in their relationship, and their decision to  end their engagement had been mutual. It had been something they had  drifted into as colleagues at the large estate agency where they both  trained. If secretly she had hoped that he would soften towards her, and  accept her need to help her father even though she would rather have  been with him, she hardened her thought against that vulnerability when  their engagement ended.

Since then there had been no man in her life. If challenged she would  have said that men found her intimidating rather than alluring, and that  she preferred it that way. Living in a small town as she did, with a  position to maintain in the community, brief affairs, sexual flings,  even the odd innocent moment of dalliance were not things that could be  kept secret, and since she had no desire to find herself the object of  local speculation, knowing how difficult it had originally been to get  people to take her seriously in her business role, she had abandoned  without too much reluctance the idea of having any kind of relationship  with the opposite sex.

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