Rival Attractions & Innocent Secretary(10)

By: Penny Jordan

‘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.’

There was a look in his eyes that suggested to Charlotte that his split from his partner had not been overly amicable, and she wondered what had caused it.

‘I had been intending to come and see you,’ he was adding. ‘While we are going to be in direct competition with one another, I thought—’

‘What?’ Charlotte challenged him bitterly. ‘That we could form the sort of ring which antiques dealers are notorious for? I’m sorry, Mr Tennant,’ she stood up abruptly, ‘that isn’t the way I do business. I don’t believe in appealing to the more greedy side of people’s natures. I prefer to set a realistic price on properties and not to encourage my clients to put outrageous prices on their homes. Nor do I believe in encouraging them to take on huge mortgages,’ she added repressively. ‘I don’t believe that you and I could ever work harmoniously together.’

‘Well, if we can’t be friends…’ he began musingly.

‘We must be enemies. That suits me fine,’ Charlotte told him grimly, and not entirely truthfully. There was something about him that warned her that he would be a formidable foe, but she had her principles and she did not intend to deviate from them. If that eventually meant that she lost so much business that her agency had to close, then so be it. She had her training to fall back on. She could always get a job in London, unappealing though that thought now was. She had her health, a very respectable bank balance, her own home…

Giving him a thin smile, she said curtly, ‘I must be leaving. I’d better go and find Vanessa.’

‘I’ll come with you.’

She stared at him, and then flushed uncomfortably. For a moment she had thought he was suggesting that they leave together, when of course he had meant nothing of the sort. Angry with herself for the sudden and totally unexpected sensation churning her stomach, she turned away from him and looked for Vanessa.

Her hostess was plainly not particularly sorry to see her leave. Charlotte hated the insincere way Vanessa insisted on aiming a pouting kiss in the direction of her cheek.

Oliver Tennant was standing directly behind her, and when she stepped back to avoid Vanessa’s embrace it was a shock to her senses to suddenly come up against the hard male warmth of him. She hadn’t realised how close to her he was standing, and, when instinctively she tensed and turned to look over her shoulder, she was stunned to discover that only centimetres separated their faces. She could see the rough male texture of his skin, darkening already with the shadow of his beard. The eyes, which at a distance seemed uniformly dark blue, on closer inspection proved to have a lighter, almost metallic outer rim.

As she had stepped back, he had reached out automatically to steady her, and she was burningly conscious of the warm pressure of his hand on her arm, his fingers firm against her skin. She saw the way Vanessa focused on that point of contact between them, her mouth tightening, and wondered why on earth he hadn’t simply stepped back from her.

‘Oliver, surely you’re not leaving? I wanted to have a word with you about putting this place on the market,’ Vanessa pouted, darting a malicious glance at Charlotte.

‘Another time, Vanessa, if you don’t mind.’

He was still holding on to Charlotte’s arm, and, as Vanessa started to say eagerly that perhaps he would like to call round in the morning, his grip relaxed slightly, and to Charlotte’s shock his fingers moved almost absently against her skin, rather as though he were stroking the fur of a very ruffled cat, she recognised.

‘Not tomorrow, I’m afraid. I’m still staying at the Bull at the moment, and I need to concentrate on finding myself some more permanent lodgings. However, I’ll get my secretary to give you a ring.’