Rival Attractions

Penny Jordan needs no introduction as arguably the most recognisable name writing for Mills & Boon. We have celebrated her wonderful writing with a special collection, many of which for the first time in eBook format and all available right now.'You'd find life much less fraught if you learned to trust people a little, Charlotte. You're always so ready to believe the worst of others… 'But Charlotte Spencer was scared to let herself follow her instincts where Oliver Tennant was concerned. How could she respond to him as an attractive man when he was also a business rival who might be playing a deeper game? In any case, what had a country bumpkin like herself to offer a sophisticated man about town?Better by far to put all thoughts of love aside…
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Rival Attractions


   Celebrate the legend that is bestselling author

   PENNY JORDAN

   Phenomenally successful author of more than two hundred books with sales of over a hundred million copies!

   Penny Jordan’s novels are loved by millions of readers all around the word in many different languages. Mills & Boon are proud to have published one hundred and eighty-seven novels and novellas written by Penny Jordan, who was a reader favourite right from her very first novel through to her last.

   This beautiful digital collection offers a chance to recapture the pleasure of all of Penny Jordan’s fabulous, glamorous and romantic novels for Mills & Boon.

About the Author

   PENNY JORDAN is one of Mills & Boon’s most popular authors. Sadly, Penny died from cancer on 31st December 2011, aged sixty-five. She leaves an outstanding legacy, having sold over a hundred million books around the world. She wrote a total of one hundred and eighty-seven novels for Mills & Boon, including the phenomenally successful A Perfect Family, To Love, Honour & Betray, The Perfect Sinner and Power Play, which hit the Sunday Times and New York Times bestseller lists. Loved for her distinctive voice, her success was in part because she continually broke boundaries and evolved her writing to keep up with readers’ changing tastes. Publishers Weekly said about Jordan ‘Women everywhere will find pieces of themselves in Jordan’s characters’ and this perhaps explains her enduring appeal.

   Although Penny was born in Preston, Lancashire and spent her childhood there, she moved to Cheshire as a teenager and continued to live there for the rest of her life. Following the death of her husband, she moved to the small traditional Cheshire market town on which she based her much-loved Crighton books.

   Penny was a member and supporter of the Romantic Novelists’ Association and the Romance Writers of America—two organisations dedicated to providing support for both published and yet-to-be-published authors. Her significant contribution to women’s fiction was recognised in 2011, when the Romantic Novelists’ Association presented Penny with a Lifetime Achievement Award.

Rival Attractions Penny Jordan


   

CHAPTER ONE

   AS CHARLOTTE turned the corner and swung her ancient Volvo estate car into the square which, when not in use as a market, served the town as its most central parking area, she cursed under her breath.

   The car park was full; of course, it would have to be when she was running late like this. Not that Paul would mind. But she did. She hated it when she found herself running behind schedule.

   Today had been an exceptionally busy day—one of her busiest perhaps since she had taken over the running of the estate-agency business her father had established here in this small Lincolnshire country town, almost six years ago now.

   Initially, when her father had first become ill, she had just stepped in on a temporary basis, but as the months had passed and it had become clear that her father was never going to be well enough to return to work, she had unwillingly given in to the emotional pressure he had put on her to give up her plans for living and working in London, independent of his rather dominating personality and the confines of a small country town where everyone knew everyone else’s business.

   Her father hadn’t been an easy person to live with, and he had certainly not been easy to work for. Although nominally Charlotte was in charge of the business, her father had demanded a full nightly report on everything that was happening, often criticising her to the point where she had had to fight to hold on to her temper, and to remind herself that he was a very sick man, who had to be humoured and cosseted. Now her father was dead, and there was really no reason why she shouldn’t sell up and leave. That was the trouble with growing older, she reflected, as she searched the square for a parking place. You became reluctant to make changes. The impetus which would once have taken her back to London was gone; she had become too used to small-town life and the last six years had developed in her a reluctant loyalty to the business which her father had founded. She liked dealing with people. She enjoyed the independence of being her own boss, of being able to make her own innovations and alterations. In the last few months of his life, her father had been unable to take any interest in the business whatsoever, and since his death she had experienced an odd disorientating sense of inertia, which made her reluctant to make any radical changes in her life.

   Let’s face it, she told herself, you’ve become a small-town person…set in your ways…used to a certain routine.

   She was almost twenty-eight years old, mature enough to appreciate what she could and could not have from life.

   Ahead of her she saw brake lights illuminate one of the parked cars. Someone was leaving the car park. And then, as the driver started to reverse, she saw the car on the other side of the car park, patiently waiting to reverse into the soon-to-be-empty spot. Only, oblivious to the waiting car, the one pulling out was reversing in its direction—leaving the emptying space unprotected. If she was quick, she could drive straight into it. She gnawed on her bottom lip, knowing that the other driver would have every right to be furious, but telling herself virtuously that on this one occasion her need was very much the greater.

   She had to see Paul to settle the last of her father’s financial affairs. The rest of her week was fully booked up. Their hitherto very quiet part of the country was suddenly being invaded by city dwellers in search of rural escapism. Over the last month she had been besieged with enquiries from Londoners wanting to explore the possibility of moving out to the country. While this was good for business, it had its negative side. The town was only small; house prices were shooting up, which meant that local young people, first-time home buyers, and those elderly couples who had lived in tied properties throughout their working lives, were now being priced out of the property market.

   Charlotte was still frowning over this as she quickly nipped into the now-vacant parking space.

   If she was quick, she would be out of her car and on her way to Paul’s office on the other side of the square before the affronted driver could object to her stealing of his or her spot.

   Slightly shamefacedly, she opened her car door and got out.

   She was wearing her normal working uniform of a long-line box-pleated skirt, a shirt, and a thick woollen jumper over the top of it. In the back of the Volvo were her wellies and Barbour—essential items for life in the country, especially when her job took her to outlying properties to do valuations. Spring had been slow in coming this year, and Charlotte had long ago discovered that short skirts and high heels, elegant though they might look, were not very practical garb when it came to crawling around measuring floors and walls.

   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.

   She pulled a face to herself, and then realised that her shortest route to Paul’s office was straight across the car park in front of the driver whose parking spot she had appropriated.

   It was a large dark blue Jaguar saloon car, driven by an equally impressive male, of the type most likely to cause susceptible female hearts to beat faster.

   One quick guarded look told her that he was tall, dark-haired and with the kind of raw maleness that his expensive suit and white shirt did little to conceal, and that his eyes were almost the same colour as his car!

   Reminding herself that she was the kind of woman who was not affected by such physical manifestations of male sensuality, Charlotte hastily averted her eyes from the car and its driver. The faint heat she could feel burning up under her skin was due to the guilt she felt at pinching his parking spot, she told herself.

   She had only glanced briefly at him, but in that short space of time she had registered the fact that he was regarding her with a certain wry irony that told her he knew quite well that she was the one who had deprived him of his parking place.

   She told herself that if she hadn’t done so she would probably still have been driving around, making herself later than ever for her appointment. She was going to a dinner party tonight; she still had to do her monthly supermarket shopping; she had some reports to dictate on the properties she had seen today.

   The influx of new, wealthy London-based buyers had seen an increase of property on to the market, especially those situated outside the town—often large and rather dilapidated houses with owners on the verge of retiring, who were looking for something smaller and more economical to run. Rather as she ought to be doing, she reminded herself. The house her father had bought when he first moved to the area over thirty years ago had originally been a vicarage. Several miles outside the town, on the edge of a small village, it was a rambling, draughty place with an enormous garden, and far too many rooms for one person.

   She ought to sell it now, while the market was buoyant, buy herself something smaller and invest what was left. She had not had a particularly happy childhood; there was no reason why she should feel that she ought to keep the house. It should be filled with a family, with children, dogs, and perhaps a pony in the paddock. She could sell it tomorrow and virtually ask her own price, despite the fact that the central heating was fired by an ancient and temperamental boiler, the rooms all needed redecorating, and the garden was like a wilderness.

   So why hadn’t she done so? Shaking her head at her own impracticality, she crossed the road and hurried into the building which housed her solicitor’s office.

   Like her, Paul was the second generation of the family business. He was three years her senior, and they had known one another virtually all their lives. At one time Paul had tried to date her, but it had been just after she had come home, still sore from her broken engagement, too drained by the hard work of adjusting herself to living at home with her father. They had remained friends, though, and she liked Paul’s wife Helen very much indeed.

   Paul greeted her affectionately when his secretary showed her into his office, telling her it didn’t matter when she apologised for being late.

   ‘Business good?’ he asked her when she was sitting down.

   ‘Pretty hectic.’

   ‘Mm…Recently there seems to be a lot of outside interest. That should be good for you.’

   Charlotte pulled a face.

   ‘Yes, financially, but there are broader implications. I had John Garner and Lucy Matthews in the other week. He and Lucy are getting married this summer. They’ve been looking for a suitable house locally for months. John will take over his father’s farm eventually, but there isn’t room there for them to move in. John’s the eldest; there are four other children still at home. Naturally he and Lucy want a place of their own, but we just haven’t had anything they can afford. His wages are low, and Lucy doesn’t earn much either.’

   ‘Can’t one of the farm buildings be converted into something for them?’

   ‘Not without planning permission, and you know how keen the local council is on keeping new building to a minimum. In theory that’s something I approve of, especially when it comes to new estates, but…’

   She gave a small shrug and, watching her, Paul said gently, ‘The trouble with you, Charlie, is that you take things too much to heart.’

   She flushed a little. Everyone who knew her well called her by the diminutive name she had been given while still at school—another sign that she was lacking in femininity, she reflected wryly.

   Treacherously her thoughts slid to the driver of the blue Jaguar car; she’d bet that the women in his life weren’t given boyish nicknames.

   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?

   Vanessa was a small, delicate blonde with a façade of pretty-prettiness that set Charlotte’s own teeth on edge; they were poles apart in every way there was.

   In Vanessa’s shoes, Charlotte doubted that she would have asked her to her dinner party, but Vanessa always made a point of including her in her invitations, and then always put her back up by making derogatory comments either about her single status or what Vanessa liked to call her ‘feminism’.

   Given free choice, Charlotte would not be attending tonight’s dinner party, but she liked Adam and felt sorry for him, and it was the kind of affair that would be bristling with important business contacts. She was attending in her role as local estate agent, that was all, and she would much rather have spent the evening getting some of her paperwork out of the way.

   The car park was almost empty when she returned to her car. She noticed guiltily that the dark blue Jaguar was parked a few spaces away, mercifully without its driver.

   As she drove homewards, perhaps because of Paul’s comments, her mind was on the new estate agency opening up in competition to her. She had told Paul that there was enough business for both of them while the boom lasted, and that she suspected that once it was over the newcomer would close his office and go elsewhere. These new high-powered agencies weren’t interested in local communities and small business, they wanted quick high profits, so in the long term, if she could just survive, she felt she had nothing to fear.

   None the less she did feel slightly uneasy as she drove back to the village. From being bright and unclouded, the future had suddenly become threateningly overcast. As she turned into the long gravel drive to the house, the knowledge that there was no one inside waiting for her, no one with whom she could share the burden of her doubts and fears, depressed her.

   She and her father had not been close, but she did miss him. They had not always agreed, but before his illness had become too much for him, they had been able to discuss the business. She had friends, of course, good ones, but her father’s teaching and her own natural caution inclined her away from discussing her problems with them. She was more used to the role of confidante, that of receiving confidences rather than giving them.

   Her telephone was ringing as she walked into the kitchen. She picked up the receiver, and frowned a little as she recognised the still girlish voice of Sophy Williams.

   Sophy had been widowed tragically six months previously. Her husband had been killed in a road accident. At only twenty-three he had not thought to carry adequate insurance on his own life, and, although their small house was now Sophy’s outright, with two small children to support and no proper income she had no idea how she was going to find the money to run the house and feed and clothe the children and herself. Although she didn’t want to do so, she was beginning to feel she would have to sell her home and move in with her parents.

   Promising to visit her the following day, Charlotte was still frowning as she replaced the receiver.

   Although luckily she had not as yet said anything to Sophy, Charlotte had been considering offering her a part-time job. She could do with an assistant to help her. Sophy’s twins were only three years old, but Sophy’s next-door neighbour in the small row of terraced houses where they lived was a retired schoolteacher, who Charlotte suspected would be only too happy to look after the children for her for a small part of each day. It had been her intention to propose to Sophy that she made what outside visits to potential clients were necessary during the hours that Mrs Meachim looked after the twins, and that all her paperwork could then be done from home, so that she was there with the twins for the rest of the day.

   At this stage she could not afford to pay Sophy a great deal, but she would train her properly and, once the twins were at school, she envisaged taking Sophy on on a more full-time basis.

   Sophy was a touchy, proud girl, all too well aware that her parents had not approved of her marrying so young. As she had confided miserably to Charlotte, the only option she seemed to have was to sink her pride, sell the house and move back in with her parents who had grudgingly offered her and the twins a home. Charlotte knew quite well that if Sophy thought for one moment that she was offering her a job out of pity she wouldn’t take it. She had hoped to convince the younger girl that, with the sudden property boom, she desperately needed more help than that provided by Sheila Walsh, who ran the office for her, but now that she was facing competition from another agency Charlotte was not sure that Sophy would be so easy to deceive. She was an intelligent girl.

   Tomorrow Charlotte hoped to dissuade her from putting her house on the market. She knew how much Sophy prized her independence. Her parents’ home was immaculate, and Mrs Sellars was particularly fussy about both the house and the garden. She would not enjoy having a pair of mischievous three-year-olds permanently about the place.

   Sophy had said as much herself, and then added that, despite her own reluctance to accept her parents’ offer, she didn’t see that she had much alternative. She had no mortgage to pay, but no money coming in either. With what she would make on the sale of the house, she would be able to invest money for the twins’ future, and living with her parents she would have very little outgoings.

   Tomorrow, hopefully, Charlotte would be able to persuade her to reconsider, knowing as she did all the doubts Sophy had about moving back with her parents.

   A glance at the kitchen clock warned Charlotte that it was time for her to go upstairs and get changed.

   The kitchen had changed very little over the years since her mother’s death. In fact, nothing in the house had changed. There had been times when she had tried to persuade her father to redecorate and refurnish, but he had obstinately refused to do so.

   Now the house was hers, she recognised, and, looking around the bleak, dull kitchen, she acknowledged that it was no wonder she found it unappealing to come back to.

   If she were selling it for someone else, she would be forced to tell the owners it had very little buyer appeal, that it might be structurally sound, waterproof and weatherproof, but that it lacked warmth, and the kind of ambience that drew prospective purchasers.

   Her father hadn’t been a wealthy man, but he hadn’t been poor either. Charlotte had been a little surprised to discover how much money she had inherited, quite apart from the business. By rights she ought to sell this house and buy something much smaller, more easily run—something more suitable for a career woman who had very little time to spend on caring for her home.

   She couldn’t sell it in its present unappealing state, she decided grimly, mentally comparing it to the homes of her friends. She had several friends who had performed wonders with houses initially far more unprepossessing than hers. She would have to ask their advice. She certainly didn’t have the time herself to search for fabrics and wall coverings, to engage workmen and choose fitments…

   But she might have, if the new agency took too much of her business. A cold finger of apprehension seemed to touch her spine, a tiny icicle of fear. There was enough business for both of them, surely? She couldn’t let her father down by losing everything he had worked so hard for. Shrugging her disquiet aside, she headed for the stairs, making a mental decision to lose no time in seeking the help of her friends in revamping the house.

   It was almost as though in making that decision she was forcing herself to believe that, despite this newcomer, her own agency would survive. She had to have that belief in herself, she acknowledged wryly as she opened her bedroom door, because there was certainly no one in her life to have that faith in her.

   Disliking her mood of self-pity, she grimaced mockingly at her reflection in the mirror. What was the matter with her? She had looked into a pair of navy-blue eyes and suddenly become aware of the fact that she was a woman and very much alone. Was she going through some sort of emotional crisis? Some sort of watershed? She was perfectly happy with her life the way it was, for goodness’ sake. The owner of the blue eyes was not even the kind of man who appealed to her. He had been too good-looking, for one thing…too assured…too male.

   A tiny shiver touched her, exposing a hidden raw spot of unhealed pain. She was well aware that such a sensual man would never be attracted to a woman like her, that he would not find her feminine and soft enough, that he would be antipathetic to her independence, her staunch determination to be seen as a human being and not a woman.

   No, he was the kind of man who gravitated more naturally to the Vanessas of this world, to the sugar and spice of the softness that in reality cloaked a sharp hardness that was far more dangerous than her own gritty independence. At least she was honest, and made no attempts to conceal what she was.

   The Vanessas of this world pretended to a vulnerability they did not actually possess, using it to pander to the male ego. By rights she ought to despise both them and the men who were stupid enough to fall for their deceit. Angry with herself, she turned away from the mirror and hurried into her bathroom.

   If she was not going to be late, she’d better shower and wash her hair.

CHAPTER TWO

   CHARLOTTE was late. The Volvo had been reluctant to start. It had originally been her father’s car, and when she had come home, giving up her job and her life in London, she had automatically started using it.

   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.’

   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.

   If the male sex couldn’t see that beneath that sugary sweetness Vanessa was as corrosive as any acid, then they deserved everything they got.

   Adam was saying something to her, clumsily trying to apologise, she recognised, her mood softening. Poor Adam. He most definitely did not deserve his atrocious wife. Sensing that he was genuinely concerned that she might be upset, she started to reassure him, and admitted, ‘I did rather over-react. I didn’t realise that the new estate agent was one of your guests.’

   ‘Vanessa invited him. She met him when she approached him to ask him to value this place.’ His face went dark red and he muttered uncomfortably, ‘I don’t know why she wants to move. I like this house…’

   ‘It’s all right, Adam,’ Charlotte told him, wanting to comfort him. ‘I’ve already recognised that most of the larger properties locally will probably go to the new agency. There’s enough business here for both of us,’ she added lightly, ‘and by opening up I suspect that Oliver Tennant has saved me the necessity of taking on a partner.’

   ‘He’s got a very good reputation,’Adam told her earnestly, seizing her olive-branch. ‘He started up originally in London and then expanded—’

   ‘To take advantage of the current fashion for living in the country—’ Charlotte finished for him a little grimly.

   ‘Adam, where are you? I want you to sit here next to Felicity.’ Vanessa’s sharp voice broke into their conversation, as she gave Charlotte a false sweet smile and said nastily, ‘Heavens, Charlie, you’re not still boring on about poor Oliver, are you?’

   Holding on to her temper, Charlotte forced herself to smile. She was bitterly regretting having ever accepted Vanessa’s invitation.

   Most of the other guests were people she knew, but not very well. They were incomers to the area in the main, like Vanessa and Adam, most of them pleasant professional couples in their mid-to-late thirties. All of them had bought their properties via her, and, although she believed that she had given them as professional and skilled service as they would get anywhere, she had no illusions. Were they to put their properties on the market tomorrow, it would be Oliver Tennant they instructed and not her.

   Dinner was a long drawn-out affair of several minute courses. Toying with hers, Charlotte suddenly thought longingly of a bowl of home-made soup, the kind that Mrs Noakes from Little Dean Farm made, along with some of her home-made rolls, eaten across the well-scrubbed farm kitchen table, while a couple of early lambs bleated noisily in front of the Aga, and Holly, the Noakeses’ now retired sheepdog, lay across her feet.

   She was not cut out for the sophisticated pleasures of life, Charlotte recognised broodingly. She had nothing in common with any of these people here, who all seemed to live frantically busy lives. The women’s conversations were interspersed with references to the hopelessness of au pairs and the traumas of the pony club, the men’s with mysterious references to ‘insider dealing’ and the horrors of London’s traffic.

   Moodily, Charlotte sipped spartanly at her wine. It was very rich and no doubt very expensive, but she wasn’t enjoying it.

   Smiling automatically at the man on her right at the circular table Vanessa favoured, as he described his battle with the local council to get planning permission for a conservatory large enough to house his new swimming-pool complex, for no reason she could analyse Charlotte was suddenly impelled to turn her head and look across the table.

   To discover Oliver Tennant looking right back at her was so unnervingly disconcerting that she took a deep gulp of her wine and promptly choked on it, causing Vanessa to frown at her and her embarrassment to increase.

   Why had he been looking at her like that? she wondered, when her embarrassment had eased. As though he had been studying her for quite some time; as though he knew every thought passing through her head; as though he almost felt sorry for her…sorry…Anger lashed at her, making her stiffen her spine and bare her teeth in a smile that made the man sitting next to her watch her nervously and wonder what on earth he had said. He was forty years old, and found modern women very confusing—this one more than most.

   The meal seemed to drag on forever. Charlotte ached to be able to leave, but good manners forced her to stay, listening politely to the conversations going on around her, as they left the dining-room to finish the evening with coffee in the drawing-room.

   Vanessa was discussing the summer fête, an annual late summer event of the village.

   Deep in her own thoughts, Charlotte was stunned when Oliver Tennant got up and walked over to sit down beside her. The amused smile that briefly lightened his expression as he sat down puzzled her. She had no idea that it was the look of shock-cum-apprehension on her own face that had caused it. Stiffly she made room for him beside her on the small pastel sofa.

   ‘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.’

   Charlotte could see that Vanessa was furious, but Oliver Tennant was either unaware of the other woman’s feelings or indifferent to them, because he gave Vanessa a cordial smile and, without allowing Charlotte to say a word, almost guided her to the front door. And he had still not released her.

   She waited until they were outside before pulling away from him and saying frigidly, ‘Thank you, but I am capable of walking unaided.’

   The smile he gave her made her heart somersault abruptly.

   ‘I’m sorry about that, but it seemed a good way of escaping from Vanessa. It’s always a problem, isn’t it, when one has to deal with a client who is potentially looking for more than a purely business relationship? I expect it’s something that’s even harder for a woman to deal with than a man.’

   Charlotte stared at him. There had been occasions when she had had to tactfully let the odd male client know that their relationship could only be based on business but, given Vanessa’s cruel taunting of her lack of sexual appeal, she had hardly expected Oliver Tennant to assume that she would be the object of any man’s desire, no matter how fleeting or implausible.

   Neither had she expected him to make such a casual reference to Vanessa’s rather obvious tactics to interest him in her sexually, and her mouth fell open a little as she contemplated this sudden and unexpected glimpse of a personality which seemed to be far more complex than she had initially assumed.

   She had looked at him and dismissed him as a handsome, clever man more or less completely without principles or morals, used to trading on his sexual appeal when and where necessary, but he was making it plain to her that he did nothing of the sort.

   Why? she wondered rawly. Was he doing it to get her off guard…to make her think that they were allies rather than enemies, and, if so, why? Did it amuse him perhaps to imagine that he could reduce her to the same competitive femininity he had so obviously aroused in Vanessa?

   She remembered how Vanessa had described her as a man-hater, and wondered if he was one of those men to whom the challenge of sexual conquest mattered far more than any real emotional bonding with another human being. An inborn wariness warned her to tread carefully. He had released her now, and she moved away from him slowly. Every instinct she possessed warned her that it would be wise to keep this man at a distance. Already he had disturbed her far too much…made her aware of a certain illuminating lack in her life. Abruptly she turned round without answering him.

   When she got in her car she was trembling inside. What was the matter with her? One look from an undeniably handsome and very male man and she was suddenly reduced to quivering awareness of her deepest feminine feelings. It was ridiculous. Even when she had been engaged, sexual desire had never strongly motivated her. In possible marriage to Gordon she had looked for companionship, children, shared interests and aims. She had never experienced that pulsing, urgent sensation of heat, coupled with an aching awareness of a deep inner emptiness that was afflicting her now.

   It must be her age, she told herself briskly as she drove home. Nature’s way of reminding her that she had still not fulfilled that most feminine biological drive: the need to create new life.

   Yes, that was it, she decided, relaxing a little. She had always wanted children; her body had no awareness of the fact that her single status made such a situation impossible and, growing impatient with her refusal to listen to its urgings, it was stepping up its determination to remind her of what she was denying herself.

   It was only later, when she was safely in bed, that she allowed herself to admit that the sensation that had pierced her had had nothing at all in common with the soft warmth that invaded her whenever she held a friend’s baby, or played with a toddler. Determinedly she dismissed it. It had been a difficult day; her hormones were probably over-reacting in compensation. Tomorrow she would be able to laugh at herself for the way she was feeling right now.

CHAPTER THREE

   CHARLOTTE was up early. She told herself that her restless night and inability to sleep had nothing whatsoever to do with the previous evening’s disturbing run in with Oliver Tennant, but somehow or other her vigorous arguments remained unconvincing.

   Perhaps it was the sharp spring sunshine pouring into the kitchen and highlighting the dinginess of the paintwork and units that was making her peer unusually closely into her most personal feelings and emotions as she was doing at her home, and with equally dissatisfying results, she admitted wryly.

   The trouble was that, over the years of her father’s illness, looking after him, running the business and trying to keep their often turbulent relationship on an even footing had left her with no time for soul-searching…or redecorating.

   She had never particularly thought of herself as the home-building type, and certainly she had no desire for a house which emulated the glossy magazine perfection of Adam’s and Vanessa’s.

   But somewhere between the unwelcoming starkness of this house and the over-luxurious fussiness of Vanessa’s there must be a happy medium.

   Mrs Higham, who came in twice a week, kept the house reasonably clean, and every now and again when she could find the energy she herself spent the odd weekend thoroughly cleaning those rooms which were not in use. Mentally contrasting her large kitchen’s lack of visual appeal and warmth with the comfortable cosiness of Sophy’s tiny terraced-house kitchen, she acknowledged that something would have to be done.

   Whether she stayed in the house or not, it was idiotic not to make any attempt to make it more welcoming. During her father’s illness she had never had the time to spare for studying her surroundings with a critical eye, but now that she had…Yellow would be a good colour for this room, she decided musingly—a soft, sunny yellow to welcome the bright spring sunshine.

   Another minute and she’d be rushing off to town to buy paint and brushes, Charlotte acknowledged ruefully. What was coming over her? She had never felt this almost nest-building urge to improve her home before. It must be the unexpected balminess of the spring sunshine, she told herself, firmly refusing to give in to her sudden desire to get to work on the kitchen almost immediately.

   She had work to do. There would be time to spare for redecorating later in the year. If Oliver Tennant succeeded in taking her business away from her, she’d have plenty of time for playing with colour schemes and pots of paint.

   When her father had originally opened his office in the local town, he had bought a small three-storeyed Tudor building, sandwiched in between its fellows down one of the old cobbled streets that ran off from the market square.

   The site had advantages and disadvantages. The street had now been designated a conservation area, which gave it an appealing visual charm, an old-worldliness that suggested that within the building might be found the kind of thatched-roofed, rose-smothered country cottage of people’s dreams. The street was also a draw to tourists and visitors who came to the town, which meant that there always seemed to be someone standing outside the old-fashioned mullioned windows staring in at the details of properties for sale. Against that, the cobbled street outside was now a pedestrian-only thoroughfare, with handsome black and gold painted bollards at either end of it to deter any driver tempted to use it as a short cut. This meant that any would-be clients had to make their way to the office on foot. In the past, when they had been the only estate agency in the area, this had not mattered, but now, with Oliver Tennant opening up…

   His offices were on the outskirts of the town, not centrally placed like hers, but they were housed in the very large and popular shopping complex, purpose-built to accommodate the needs of the modern shopper and his or her car.

   Charlotte was frowning as she parked her own car on the municipal car park on waste ground behind the Town Hall. Today was market day, which meant that the market square would be closed to parkers.

   Sheila Walsh, who had been her father’s secretary-cum-office-manager and who had been with them for ten years, welcomed her into the office above the reception area with a smile and a cup of coffee. Sheila was a married woman in her late forties with two grown-up children and a husband in the police force. She was a sensible, attractive woman to whom tact and discretion were second nature. Charlotte had found her help invaluable when she had first returned home to take up the reins of the business. She might have the qualifications, she had acknowledged, but Sheila had something far more valuable. She had experience and a way of dealing with people that Charlotte envied.

   It had been at Charlotte’s insistence that her father had agreed that Sheila should be promoted to ‘office manager’ and be given a salary and a percentage of their profits commensurate with the amount of work she did for them.

   Without Sheila there was no way she could run the business as successfully as she did, Charlotte recognised, thanking her, and sitting down so that they could both go through the post.

   ‘The new place opens up officially today,’ Sheila commented. ‘I wonder what he’s like…the new man,’ she mused.

   Unwillingly Charlotte told her, ‘I met him last night at Adam’s and Vanessa’s dinner party.’

   It was part of Sheila’s skill that she never probed. She waited now in silence, her eyebrows slightly raised.

   She liked working with Charlotte. Initially, on hearing that her boss’s daughter was coming home to take over the business, she had been uncertain as to whether or not she would stay on, but once she had realised how much Charlotte genuinely valued her, and how soft-hearted she really was beneath her rather austere exterior, she had put all her reservations to one side, and, as she told people quite genuinely now, her work brought her immense pleasure and satisfaction.

   It saddened her that so many people misjudged Charlotte. Even her own husband had remarked, after first meeting her, that she was rather formidable. Sheila often wondered compassionately how it was that, while a woman could so easily see through another woman’s armour to her vulnerability, a man was completely deceived by outward appearances and manners. Men were like children really, she often though scornfully; they always went for the gooey, heavily iced cake, not realising that once the icing was gone all they were going to be left with was stodgy and often unappetising sponge. Women were far more enterprising, far more aware; they knew that the very best things in life were often concealed by the most unappealing of exteriors.

   Sheila Walsh was a traditionalist and made no apology for it. She loved her work and found it stimulating and rewarding, but it was her marriage and her family that formed the bedrock of her life. Without Rob to go home to at night, to talk over the events of the day with, to fight with and love, her life would be very arid.

   Although Charlotte was older than her own daughter, Sheila acknowledged that she was inclined to feel a motherly protectiveness towards her. She was constantly urging her to buy new clothes, to go out and enjoy herself. Charlotte was such an attractive-looking girl in reality, but she tended to put men off with her brisk put-down manner. And yet one only had to see Charlotte with the children of her friends to realise what kind of woman hid behind her rather formidable exterior.

   Sheila had got to know Charlotte very well over the last six years, and now, seeing the faint flush that stained her skin and the way she shifted her gaze, as though not wanting Sheila to look too penetratingly at her, Sheila became extremely curious about Oliver Tennant.

   She had more intelligence than to ask too many questions, though, simply listening while Charlotte told her almost hesitantly about the dinner party.

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