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A Gentle Awakening
By Betty Neels
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE hot June sunshine of a late afternoon bathed the narrow country road in warmth, and the only traveller on it dawdled along, pedalling slowly, partly from tiredness after a day's work, and partly from a reluctance to arrive at her home.
The village came in sight round the next curve: the bridge over the river, leading to the road which would eventually join the high road to Salisbury, and then the cottages on either side of the lane. They were charming, tiled or thatched, their red bricks glowing in the sunshine, their porches wreathed with clematis and roses. The cyclist came to a halt before one of these, and at the same time a silver-grey Bentley swam to a soundless halt beside her.
The girl got off her bike. She was small and thin, with gingery hair plaited into a thick rope over one shoulder, green eyes transforming an ordinary face into something which, while not pretty, certainly lifted it from the ordinary.
The car driver got out: a very large man, towering over her. Not so young, she decided, studying him calmly, but very good-looking, with dark hair sprinkled with grey, a formidable nose and heavy-lidded blue eyes. He smiled down at her, studying her in his turn, and then dismissing her from his thoughts. None the less, he smiled ather and his deep voice was pleasant.
"I wonder if you could help us? We wanted to stay the night in the village, but the Trout and Feathers can't put us up and we would rather not drive back to Wilton or Salisbury." He glanced over his shoulder to where a small girl's face was thrust through the open window of the car. "Just bed and breakfast - we can get a meal at the pub."
He held out a hand. "The name is Sedley - William Sedley."
The girl offered a small brown hand and had it engulfed. "Florina Payne, and yes, if you go on as far as the bridge, there is a farmhouse facing it; they haven't got a board up, but I'm sure they would put you up." She wrinkled her ginger brows. "There isn't anybody else in the village, I'm afraid. You would have to go back to Burford St Martin on the main road."
She was thanked politely, and the child in the front seat waved to her as they drove off. She wheeled her bike along the brick path at the side of the cottage and went in through the kitchen door, thinking about the driver of the car, to have her thoughts rudely shattered by her father's voice.
"So there you are - took your time coming home, didn't you? And then wasted more of it talking to that fellow. What did he want, anyway?"
The speaker came into the kitchen, a middle-aged man with an ill-tempered face. "You might at least get home punctually; you know I can't do anything much for myself, and here I am, alone all day and you crawling back when it suits you ..."
He paused for breath and Florina said gently, "Father, I came just as soon as I could get off. The hotel is very busy with the tourist season, you know, and that man only wanted to know where he could get a room for the night."
Her father snorted. "Pah, he could afford a hotel in Wilton, driving a Bentley!" He added spitefully, "Wasting your time and his for that matter - who'd want to look twice at a ginger- headed plain Jane like you?"
Florina was laying the table and, although colour stole into her cheeks, she answered in a matter-of-fact voice. "Well, it won't be a waste of time if he gets a room at the farm. Sit down, Father, tea won't be long."
She would very much have liked to have sat down herself and had a cup of tea; it had been a busy day at the hotel. During the summer season, tourists expected meals at odd hours, and she and the other two cooks there had worked all day, whisking up omelettes, steaks, fish dishes, egg dishes and salads, just as fast as they could. They had taken it in turn to eat a sandwich and drink a mug of tea, but it had been a long day. She had worked there for three years now, hating the long cycle ride in the winter to and from her home, as well as the long hours and the lack of free time. But the pay, while not over-generous, was good; it supplemented her father's pension and brought him all the extra comforts he took as his right. That it might have given her the chance to buy pretty clothes had never entered his head; she was his daughter, twenty-seven years old, on the plain side, and it was her duty to look after him while he lived. Once or twice she had done her best to break free, and each time, when she had confronted him with a possible job away from home, he had clutched at his chest, gasped that he was dying and taken to his bed. A dutiful, but not loving daughter - for what was there to love? - she had accepted that after the one heart attack he had had several years ago, he could have another if he became upset or angry; so she had given in.
She was a sensible girl and didn't allow self-pity to overwhelm her. She was aware that she had no looks to speak of, and those that she had were hardly enhanced by the cheap clothes, bought with an eye to their hard-wearing quality rather than fashion.
Her father refused to cook for himself during the day. She left cold food ready for him before she left each morning, and tea was a substantial meal, which meant that she had to cook once more. Haddock and poached eggs, a plate of bread and butter, stewed fruit and custard, and tea afterwards. She had no appetite for it, but the suggestion that they might have salads and cold meat met with a stream of grumbles, and anything was better than that after a day's work.
They ate in silence. Her father had no interest in her day and, since he had done nothing himself, there was nothing to tell her. He got up from the table presently and went into the sitting-room to sit down before the TV. Florina started to clear the table, wash up and put everything ready for breakfast. By the time she had finished the evening was well advanced but still light; half an hour's walk would be pleasant, she decided. She cheerfully countered her father's objections to this and set off through the village, past the cottages, past the Trout and Feathers, past the lovely old house next the pub where old Admiral Riley lived, and along the tree-lined lane. It was still warm and very quiet, and if she stood still she could hear the river beyond the trees.
Excerpted from A Gentle Awakening by Betty Neels Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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