Rival Attractions & Innocent Secretary(8)

By: Penny Jordan

Charlotte struggled to control her anger and her chagrin. She wouldn’t be in the least surprised if Vanessa had deliberately planned this, deliberately inveigled her into that outburst of righteous indignation so that she could make a fool of her, although honesty compelled Charlotte to admit that she had more than ably helped her. Why on earth hadn’t she kept her thoughts to herself? Why allow Vanessa to provoke her? She felt humiliated and embarrassed, and was dreading turning round and facing ‘Oliver’, who, no matter what she might think of his business methods, deserved at least to be treated with the cordiality due to a newcomer to the area.

Gritting her teeth, she forced a smile to her mouth and turned round.

The stilted words of apology died on her lips as she found herself confronting the driver of the Jaguar car. Now close up, she saw that his eyes were even more astonishingly dark blue than she had thought, and that at close quarters his maleness was every bit as formidable as she had imagined.

Uncomfortably she felt heat flood her skin—the heat of embarrassment and confusion. It crawled painfully along her throat and burned her cheekbones. She could almost feel Vanessa’s gloating malice, as the blonde woman placed one dainty hand on the man’s arm and smiled invitingly up at him.

‘Never mind, Oliver,’ Vanessa said softly. ‘We aren’t all as unfriendly as Charlotte. You mustn’t mind her. She has a bit of a thing against men in general, I’m afraid. She’s our local feminist.’

Charlotte was bitterly, achingly furious, but there was nothing she could do. She met the speculative glance he gave her full on.

She could imagine all too well what he was thinking: that her supposed feminist views were because she was not physically attractive enough to appeal to the majority of men. A man like him, so arrogantly self-assured of his masculinity, could never comprehend that there were women whose lives were perfectly happy without being built around some man.

As he extended his hand towards her, he said shockingly, ‘I’ve been wanting to meet you.’

His words stunned her, holding her immobile. Wanting to meet her…? Why? Guiltily her mind sped back to the afternoon, to her sneaky acquisition of his parking spot.

‘I’m afraid Charlie doesn’t approve of you at all,’ Vanessa was saying bitchily. ‘She seems to think that just because you’re successful you must be guilty of sharp business practice.’

The blue eyes studied Charlotte rather too shrewdly for her comfort for a moment, and then he said smoothly, ‘Well, naturally I’d deny such an allegation, although speaking of sharp practice—’

He was going to mention this afternoon, to amuse himself at her expense by recounting what she had done. Suddenly preternaturally sensitive, she felt the stinging colour in her face deepen. He was laughing at her, she knew. More amused than angered by her supposed antipathy towards him, enjoying her embarrassment.

Quite what would have happened if Adam had not suddenly come up to tell Vanessa that the hired staff were ready to serve dinner, Charlotte didn’t know.

As Vanessa, ignoring both Charlotte and Adam, turned away, taking Oliver Tennant with her, Charlotte discovered that she was trembling inwardly with a mixture of anger and impotence. Her anger was caused as much by Oliver Tennant’s patronising amusement at her expense as by Vanessa’s malice, and her frustrated impotence was the result of her own inability to escape from the role Vanessa had deliberately cast her into.

Vanessa had taken good care to paint her in colours to Oliver Tennant which, while having a basis in truth, were greatly exaggerated. Charlotte made no apology for her own belief that Oliver Tennant was cashing in on the property boom without any thought of how it would eventually affect their small community, but, given free choice, she would not have voiced those opinions so volubly or tactlessly in his presence. It was also true that there were certain aspects of the male sex which she personally found unappealing, but she was by no means the almost vigilante-like anti-men campaigner Vanessa had portrayed.

Unwittingly worrying at her bottom lip, as Adam escorted her through to the dining-room, Charlotte fumed over Vanessa’s deliberately derogatory description of her as a feminist. Vanessa had used the word as a malicious insult. Charlotte resented being classified as a specific ‘type’ under any name; she was an individual, and, if her upbringing and physical attributes made it impossible for her to mimic Vanessa’s cloying, clinging, supposedly ‘feminine’ manner with men, she preferred to think that it was because she had too much pride…too much self-awareness…too much self-respect to sink to Vanessa’s level.

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