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BETHANY glanced around her. The scenery on the high mountain pass was awesomely bleak and beautiful in the pearly grey light of an early February afternoon. For the first few miles, while the pass had run fairly straight and level between rock-strewn fells, she had seen a black Range Rover in the rear-view mirror. But over the last half mile or so it must have turned off into a side valley, because now she had the road to herself.
When she had set off to Bosthwaite earlier in the day to visit Mrs Deramack and look at some antiques, she had taken the main road but had taken this lonely route back especially to see more of the wild and rugged grandeur she remembered well from her one previous visit to the Lake District.
As she drove however, she thought back to that wonderful visit and remembered a lean, good-looking face with brilliant eyes and a mouth with the kind of male beauty that tied her insides in knots.
A face that had stayed fresh in her mind for the past six years.
Quiet and shy, she had been just seventeen at the time and on a family holiday with her parents. Returning from the west coast of Scotland, they had decided to spend one night in Cumbria on their way back to London.
They had been staying in Dundale End, and after dinner that evening, encouraged by their landlady, "You must go, my dears, everyone will be there..." they had gone to a concert at the small village hall. In front of a makeshift stage, rows of chairs had been arranged in a semi-circle, and it had been there, sitting on an uncomfortable plastic chair in the centre of the second row, that she had fallen in love for the first time. Love at first sight. The hot, crazy kind of love thathad turned her chest into a bell and her heart into a clapper.
She had watched him walk in, tall and broad across the shoulders, casually dressed, he had an air of quiet confidence. Somewhere in his early twenties, he was a man not a boy, with a strong-boned face, thick corn-coloured hair and light, brilliant eyes.
With him had been an elderly couple and a girl about his own age, who addressed him as Joel.
Joel... Bethany had hugged the name to her as though it was some precious gift.
He exchanged greetings with many of the people there, which suggested he was a local. Bethany had wished fervently that she and her parents were staying here instead of going back to London the next day.
Try as she would, her eyes had been drawn to him more often than to the stage. On one occasion she had found him staring back at her with a quiet intensity that made heat spread through her entire body. Feeling her cheeks flame, she had looked hastily away, her curtain of long dark hair swinging forward, hiding her embarrassment.
As the show came to an end, finishing with prolonged and hearty applause, she had kept her attention fixed firmly on the stage.
Perhaps when everyone was on their way out they might meet, might exchange a word. Lovely evening... Are you on holiday...? But when she'd glanced back, the little group had gone. She'd felt bitterly disappointed.
Although she had told herself it was ridiculous to long for something that only might have happened, she had thought and dreamt about him for months.
The memory of that past innocent adoration warmed her and for a few precious seconds took her mind off this which was turning out to be a disaster.
In more ways than one.
That morning, after a poor night's sleep and an uncomfortable half hour spent sitting opposite her silent, still-angry boss, Tony, while they ate breakfast at the Dundale Inn, she had taken the main road to the valley of Bosthwaite to see Mrs Deramack.
It was, she had discovered, a dead-end valley, and the tiny, isolated hamlet of Bosthwaite was made up of a few widely scattered houses and a farm.
Finding the road--which was little more than a track--ran through the farmyard, she had stopped to ask directions.
After warning her, "Old Mrs Deramack's a bit... you know..." Apparently at a loss for words, the farmer had tapped his forehead with a gnarled finger, before pointing out Bosthwaite House.
Bethany soon realized what he'd meant when the old lady informed her that though Joseph, her husband, had passed away some five years ago, he was still with her and would need to agree on the price of anything she parted with.
The antiques she wanted to sell were stored in the freezing cold, badly lit attic, and while she hovered at the bottom of the attic stairs talking to her husband as though he was still alive and with them, Bethany had gone through what seemed endless boxes and cartons.
When, chilled to the bone and cramped from so much squatting, her throat dry, clogged with the dust of ages, she had finished the last box, she pushed back a loose strand of dark hair and admitted defeat.
In an attempt to soften the blow, she had told the old lady that though there was nothing amongst her treasures that Feldon Antiques would be prepared to buy, there were other local dealers who might be interested. She had written down the names of two of them before getting into her car and driving away.
When she reached an old white-walled pub called The Drunken Pig, she had stopped to wash her face and hands and re-coil her long dark hair before ordering a refreshing pot of tea and an omelette.
While she ate she had studied her map and decided to take the mountain pass back to Dundale, rather than the main road.
From the start the landscape had been dramatic, but now it had become even more spectacular. On the left was a towering rock face and on the right, an abyss, as the ground dropped away precipitously.
A lot sooner than she had expected, the clear air had become hazy and twilight had started to creep in, while grey swirling mist began to hide the tops of the highest peaks.
She switched on the car's headlights and on a road way down in the valley below saw an answering gleam. Just that distant light, a reminder that she wasn't totally alone, was reassuring.
Even so, she found herself wondering a shade uneasily if she had been wise to take this deserted switchback route--though the Lakeland scenery was truly magnificent, and she loved it.
A love of the country that Tony Feldon, her boss, and owner of Feldon Antiques since the death of his father the previous year, had signally failed to share.
He had made no secret of the fact that he was a dedicated city man and couldn't wait to get back to London and 'civilization'.
When they had drawn up outside the Dundale Inn the previous night, he had glanced around at the dark fells and shuddered. "It looks like the back of beyond! When I booked I should have made sure it was in town..."
She wondered why he'd booked it himself rather than leaving it to Alison, his general dogsbody.
"If we're forced to stay in this God-forsaken spot for two nights, it had better be worth it," he muttered half under his breath.
"I'm sure it will be." Hoping to keep him in a reasonably good mood, she added, "There are some very fine lots listed in Greendales' preview catalogue."
Taking their overnight bags from the car boot, he handed Bethany hers and agreed, "That's true."
As she followed him into the hotel and across the deserted lobby to the empty reception desk, he muttered, "God, what a dump! It looks as if we're the only people staying here."
"Well it is the middle of the week and out of season," she pointed out.
He dropped his case on the carpet and brought his hand down hard on the brass bell that squatted on the desk like a metal toad. "It might be the middle of the week and out of season," he said irritably, "but the blasted place is supposed to be open."
Ignoring his bad temper and the scowl that marred his darkly handsome features, Bethany went on, "And from what Mrs Deramack said when I spoke to her on the phone, it sounds as if she has some very good pieces of silver and porcelain."
"Well, if she has, let's hope the old biddy doesn't realize how good, or she'll no doubt want the earth for them."
"Do you intend to go and see her yourself?" 'No. I had a quick glance at the map. It's quite a way to Bosthwaite Valley, and I'll have more than enough on. I'll get a taxi to Greendales and you can take the car.
"If you think any of the items Mrs Deramack wants to sell are in our line, don't say too much and don't put a price on them. I'll do the negotiating myself, even if it means staying up here an extra day..."
Bethany frowned. His failure to give her a free hand rankled. She had worked for James Feldon, Tony's father, since she had left school at eighteen, and after his sudden and fatal heart attack, she had missed him a great deal.
She had liked and trusted the old man as much as she disliked and distrusted his son. His conviction that women were fair game made her hackles rise, as did his frequent suggestions--since Devlin had been wiped from the picture--that if she loosened up they could 'have a little fun together'.
So far she had managed to keep him at arm's length without too much bad blood, but if he didn't soon get the message and back off she would have to leave.
It was a depressing thought.
She still liked her job and when she wasn't actually travelling the shop was within easy walking distance of the flat in Belgravia that she shared with a friend.
Added to that, while she was working she was not only saving hard but buying up small items with a view to one day starting her own business.
Glancing round the still deserted lobby, Tony banged the bell a second time with unnecessary violence. "Where the devil is everyone?"
A moment later an elderly woman appeared. "I'm sorry if I've kept you waiting, but the desk clerk has gone home ill and there's no one to take his place... You have booked?"