Rival Attractions & Innocent Secretary(2)

By: Penny Jordan

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.

Her life was busy and fulfilled. She had good friends, an interesting career, her independence, both financial and emotional, and if ever there were times when, while cuddling a friend’s child, the soft, warm body weakeningly close to her own, she ached for a child of her own, she only had to remind herself of the traumas she had seen her friends go through at the hands of those same men, who had given them their children, to make herself realise that the price she was paying for her independence, while high, was perhaps worthwhile.

She would have liked children. She enjoyed their company, their conversation, their innocence and naturalness, but Little Marsham was not the kind of place where one could fearlessly and modernistically announce that one was going to become a single mother. No, for Charlotte, her present way of life was the best way: single and celibate.

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