Rival Attractions & Innocent Secretary(7)

By: Penny Jordan

Somehow or other she had never got round to replacing it, but now she recognised, as she drove skilfully towards the Jameses’ house, that she was going to have to think about doing so.

She thought enviously about the sleek dark blue Jaguar, and then dismissed this fantasy from her mind. What she needed was something sturdy and sensible, not something glamorous and powerful.

When she reached the Jameses’ house it was to find the circular drive already packed with parked cars. Under the illumination of the expensive reproduction lights, the lawn looked as smooth and immaculate as a newly laid carpet. The gardens to the rear of the house had, only last summer, been expensively and extensively redesigned by a fashionable London firm; the gravel beneath the Volvo’s wheels had been specially chosen to tone with the stone of the house.

Charlotte knew all these things because Vanessa always made a point of announcing and describing at great length whatever renovations she was currently engaged in. As she climbed out of the Volvo, Charlotte wondered why it was that she allowed the other woman to needle her so much.

It was Adam who opened the door to her knock. He gave her a warm smile as she stepped inside, and kissed her on the cheek. Vanessa appeared in the hallway just as he was doing so, her eyes sharpening as they studied the warmth in her husband’s eyes as he welcomed their last guest.

‘Charlie. At last. In a rush, were you?’Vanessa asked sweetly as she hurried her into the drawing-room, adding in a light and very audible voice, ‘You must come with me the next time I go to London. I know a couple of places where they specialise in fitting difficult figures.’

Charlotte knew that her black velvet skirt was out of fashion. She did not have many evening clothes, having limited opportunity to wear them, but Vanessa’s gibe about her appearance had been bitchily unnecessary. She might not have Vanessa’s small, curvaceous femininity, but there was nothing ‘difficult’ about her figure. She was on the thin side, yes, but fitted easily into standard size ten clothes and never had the slightest trouble buying things off the peg, which was probably more than could be said for Vanessa, who seemed to purposely choose clothes which drew attention to her small waist and disproportionately full breasts.

Charlotte knew it was illogical to suddenly become aware of the fact that her breasts were perhaps a little on the small side; it wasn’t something that had ever particularly bothered her, apart from once or twice during their engagement when Gordon had admiringly commented on the more generous charms of other women, but, illogical or not, she discovered that she was suddenly hunching her shoulders, as though trying to conceal her upper body from any curious glances.

Irritated with herself, she straightened up. It was idiotic to let Vanessa get to her like this.

‘Mind you,’ Vanessa continued maliciously, ‘I suppose you’ll be far too busy to go to London now that the new agency is opening up. I’ve told Adam that we must have this place revalued. We’ve really done everything with it that we can, and I rather fancy something a little larger. With this influx of people from London, we’re bound to get a good price.’

She gave a complacent laugh which grated on Charlotte’s ears, making her snap acidly, ‘The increase in prices might be good news to you, Vanessa, but you seem to forget that, the moment prices start to increase, it means that young couples down at the bottom of the salary scale are priced out of the market and often forced to move away from an area where they might have lived all their lives. And it doesn’t help when prices are driven up even further by greedy agents, who deliberately foster an upsurge in prices for their own benefit, without thinking about the unhappiness they’re causing. If you really want my opinion, the kind of agent who cold-bloodedly opens up just to cash in on a boom area is quite despicable. They don’t care about the misery they’re going to cause to local people.’

‘Well, of course you’re bound to feel resentful,’ Vanessa cooed, plainly delighted by Charlotte’s outburst, and too late Charlotte realised her own stupidity.

It was too late to recall her words now, she realised, too late to do anything at all, as Vanessa suddenly smiled at someone over Charlotte’s shoulder and said softly, ‘Oliver… there you are. Come and meet Charlotte Spencer, although I’m afraid you won’t get a very warm reception, and I must warn you that Charlotte has the reputation of being something of a man-hater.’ Vanessa gave a light, tinkling laugh that grated on Charlotte’s nerves. ‘She’s just been sounding off about the fact that you’re opening up in competition to her. I don’t think she’s very pleased about it. But then I suppose that’s understandable when you haven’t been used to competition. Personally, I’m all for it.’

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