Rival Attractions & Innocent Secretary(4)

By: Penny Jordan

Instantly she was furious with herself. What on earth had made her think that? Was she so very predictable after all? she asked herself scornfully. A brief glimpse of a handsome face, an awareness of the scrutiny with which a pair of dark blue eyes were studying her face, and suddenly she was seeing herself through those blue eyes and finding herself lacking.

She tried to concentrate on what Paul was saying.

‘It will mean extra business for me, but, of course, it’s bound to affect you.’

She tensed, suddenly realising what he was talking about.

It had been just after her father’s death that she had first heard the rumours that a new estate agent was contemplating opening up in the area. The influx of newcomers into the area had obviously attracted the attention of people looking for new business activities. Over recent months a rash of expensive small shops supplying luxury goods had opened up in the town; the owner of the local garage had been bought out, and the newcomers had knocked down the old building and rebuilt a large custom-designed showroom, which was now filled with shiny expensive cars, and small, prettily covered four-wheel-drive dinky toys with exotic and unpronounceable names.

It was a long way from the old days when Fred Jarvis supplied petrol, did repairs and maintenance, and could when pressed find you an ancient but roadworthy Land Rover.

Perhaps she ought to have been more prepared for competition in her own field, but she had been so exhausted by the effort of nursing her father through the final weeks of his illness that, when she had heard the gossip about the new estate agency opening up in the town, she had merely absorbed it without thinking about its impact on her own life.

Now she said evenly, ‘Well, there’s enough business for both of us.’

She didn’t add that she suspected the newcomer would be after a quick killing, that he would take advantage of the surge of buying and selling, no doubt taking the cream off the top of her business with the larger, more expensive properties.

Paul was looking dubious, and Charlotte could guess what he was thinking. The townspeople were set in their ways, traditionalists in the main like her father; they had dealt with her when they had had no choice, but now, with a new agency opening up, no doubt run by a man, would they still give her, a woman, their business?

‘At the moment, yes, but when this boom is over…’

‘When it’s over he’ll probably close up his office and move away again,’ Charlotte told him shortly. ‘After all, from what I’ve heard this office is only going to be one of several.’

‘I believe so, yes,’ Paul agreed.

Charlotte sighed, knowing all that he didn’t want to say. She knew quite well how these modern agencies worked: brash, pushy, promising the earth, persuading people into taking on much larger mortgages than they could afford, and taking a commission on selling the finance to them. That was not the way she did business.

Paul was speaking again.

‘I’m surprised they didn’t approach you with an offer to buy you out.’

‘It’s just as well they didn’t. I wouldn’t have sold. Have I signed everything now?’ she asked him, changing the subject. She hated being the object of the concern and almost pity of her friends, who all seemed to assume that she was bound to lose out to the newcomer. She was proud of the way she ran her business—her values might be old-fashioned, but she intended to hold on to them. If the arrival of the newcomer meant that she had to scrap the plans she had been making for expanding, then at least no one but herself knew of those plans.

‘I suppose you’re going to the Jameses’ tonight?’ Paul asked when he had checked that she had signed everything.

Charlotte nodded and grimaced. ‘Yes, but I’m not looking forward to it. I like Adam, but Vanessa isn’t really my type.’

‘Nor mine,’ Paul agreed. ‘She’s a bit of a man-eater.’

Adam and Vanessa James were the local high-fliers. Adam was a quiet, studious man in his late thirties whose innovative skill in the world of computers had led to his establishing a very successful business. They had moved into the area five years ago, buying a large Victorian house on the outskirts of the same village as Charlotte’s father’s house.

Charlotte had always felt that in some way Vanessa resented her, although she could not see why. By her own lights Vanessa had everything she wanted from life: a wealthy, generous husband, who turned a blind eye to her determined flirtations with other men; a superb home, on which no expense had been spared; two quiet, dull children, who spent most of their time away at boarding school. Add to that the frequent shopping trips to London, their attendance at all the major events of the social calendar, holidays in the Caribbean in winter, and other far-flung exotic and fashionable spots in summer, and it was difficult to understand the resentment that Charlotte always felt emanating from Vanessa. What had she got that Vanessa could possibly envy?