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"Candidado come and sit here, next to me!' Rick Dawson pulled out a chair at the huge mahogany table for the girl to take her place, and she smiled gratefully, realising that she was unlikely to know anyone else at the party other than her hostsRick and his wife Faith. Although Candida was used to meeting strangers during the course of her work as an interior design consultant, social occasions were another matter entirely, and she always sent up a silent prayer to her guardian angel for support!
She could see at once that this was to be a fairly elaborate occasion, with everyone formally dressed. But the atmosphere was informal enough, and friendly chatting and laughing filled the large room. Candida was relieved to be sitting down to eat, rather than having to balance buffet food as well as holding a wine glass. Besides, the very high-heeled strappy shoes she'd chosen to wear were already beginning to pinch!
"In case you're all wondering,' Faith said to the assembled gathering, raising her voice above the chatter as she took her place at the other end of the table, "we've got caterers doing the honours this evening. So there's no need for you all to ask me how I find the time to feed thirty of us and look after a two-year-old!'
Candida caught the woman's eye and they both smiled, a familiar look passing between them. On the few occasions that Faith had brought little Emily with her when she'd come to Farmhouse Cottage during all the refurbishments, work had tended to get held up! But at last everything, inside and out, had been completed on time, and this evening's party was to celebrate the fact.
Glancing up, Candida soon realised that the chair toher right was vacant. Someone had obviously cancelled at the last moment, she thought briefly.
Rick smiled down at her. "What projects are you working on at the moment, Candida?' he asked, filling her glass to the brim. "Still busy?'
"Nothing as big as this has been, Rick,' Candida replied truthfully. "Just some small niggles on one contract to put right, and an enquiry to follow up.' The fact was, this extended fourteenth-century building, which the Dawsons had spent a lot of money bringing up to standard, had been one of the most valuable assignments that Candida had ever dealt with. And all her suggestions for the interior finishings had been instantly agreed upon. Faithpretty, blonde and bubblyhad seemed relieved to let Candida take all the responsibility and initiative. From their very first meeting the two women had taken to each other straight away, and Faith's attitude to Candida was verging on the maternal, even though they were of a similar age, both being in their late twenties.
Presently, just as a young waitress appeared and began to serve them the first course, the sound of the front door slamming loudly made everyone stop talking briefly, and Faith looked up, feigning annoyance.
"Honestly! At last! Brothers are the most inconsiderate of guests! I told him not to be late, and he promised me that this time he'd be good!'
There was a general murmur of greeting, most seeming to know the latecomer who breezed into the room. The man went straight over to Faith and gave her a bear hug.
"Sorry, FaithRick' The deep, masculine voice, sultry in manner, and as rich as dark chocolate melting on the tongue, resonated around the room. "I got held up. Not my faulthonest!'
"It never is, is it, Maxy?'Faith said with mock sarcasm. "Now, sit down by Candida and be sociable for once!'
So the empty seat next to her was for "Maxy', Candida thought, glancing up at him as he pulled back his chair. He looked down at her briefly.
"Hi,' he said. "I'm Max. I believe you're the woman of the momentMs Candida Greenway?'
"No. I'm Candy,' Candida corrected, feeling suddenly unexpectedly nervyand apprehensive. Well, she'd not had much practice at meeting new men lately, she reminded herself, or been to many parties. To say nothing of the fact that she'd already drunk two glasses of very good wine on an empty stomach! Which could account for the sudden tremble of her hand as she reached for her glass!
He sat down, his tall, well-built frame only just managing to fit into the upholstered dining chair, and Candida looked up at him curiously. So this was Faith's brother. There was no resemblance between them, she thoughtand Faith had never even mentioned him during their conversations. His rather long, glossy dark hair fell carelessly around his ears and the nape of his neck, falling forward over his forehead in a thick, unruly shock of waves, obviously with a life of their own, threatening to meet and overtake his well-defined eyebrows. As he looked back at her, Candida coloured up, her amber eyes responding instinctively to his sensuous inky-blue-black ones.
"I've heard all about you, you know,' he said matter-of-factly. "My sister's been doing a wonderful PR job on your behalf.' He unfolded his napkin and placed it across his knees. "From what she's been saying, you've taken all the responsibility from herso good on you.' He smiled briefly, his teeth white against the colour of his tanned skin, but Candida had difficulty smiling back.
There was something about the man's attitude that was patronising and superiortwo qualities she definitely did not like! And turning up so late was unforgivable, not to mention his obvious enjoyment at making an entrance. Slamming the door like that had been as effective as a roll of drums! She had definitely felt wary of him as soon as he'd sat down, his determined jaw and whole persona suggesting something of a brutish masculinity, and it had made her feel momentarily vulnerable. It was just rather unfortunate that he happened to be the most gorgeous man in the room! Not that that cut any ice with her! She reached forward again for her wine glass, and he immediately picked up his own, clinking it against hers.
"Good luck,' he said non-committally, as he took a generous mouthful. Then he turned to look at her again, assessing her appearance coolly, studying the heart-shaped face, tip-tilted nose and full lips. She was wearing a rather serious expression, he noticed, unless she suddenly showed her perfect white teeth, but her long chestnut hair, coiled high on the top of her head, must look wonderful left loose around her shoulders.
"D'you like these sort of affairs?' he said unexpectedly, and without waiting for a reply went on, "Personally, I loathe them. But Faith and Rick's are always OKthe only ones I actually look forward to.' He picked up his knife and fork. "I like the dress, by the way,' he said, almost as an afterthought. "Colour's terrific. Suits you.'
Candida stared up at him blankly. She should have been pleased at the compliment, she thought, but for some reason it irritated her. They'd barely met, after all, and to her it felt out of place for him to pass any kind of judgement, good or otherwise, on what she was wearing. Even if it was the most expensive single item she'd ever purchased. It was fitted silk, with a flattering scoop neckline, the straight skirt just touching her knee. And the colour, a jewelled aquamarine shade, had reminded her instantly of sunlight on ocean waves.
Well, if she decided to be as familiar and outspoken as he was being, she could certainly air her own opinions! His round-necked, fine grey T-shirtclearly exhibiting taut, well-toned chest musclescasual pants and suede jacket, which he'd already slung carelessly over the back of his chair, hardly fitted the occasion. Every other man in the room was smartly dressed, and all were wearing ties. Instead, she decided to accept the compliment graciously.
"Thanks,' she said, equally casually. "It was the colour which first attracted me and fortunately it fitted as well.'
"Oh, it certainly does that,' he said at once, glancing down. "You look as if you've been poured into it.'
That remark made Candida sit back hurriedly, suddenly self-conscious at his words. She knew it was rather revealingly low-cut, showing more cleavage than anything else she'd ever worn. And something in the way Faith's brother had made the point gave her the distinct impression that he was mentally undressing her!
Rick turned to her, interrupting them. "I hope Max isn't being a nuisance,' he said, grinning over her head at his brother-in-law. "He's an old cynicdon't let him intimidate you, Candida. He's got a reputation for eating delicious young women for lunch!'
Candida smiled back at Rick. "I don't think I'd be quite to his taste,' she replied, saying the first thing that came into her head. "And don't worry, RickI'm well able to look after myself.'
"I'm sure you are, Candida.' He paused, then spoke to Max. "Why aren't we being graced by the lovely Ella's presence, then, Max? Faith said she wouldn't be coming tonight.'
"Oh, you know Ella. She has a way of letting me know when she's had enough of my company,' Max said evenly. "So she's gone to spend a few days with Jack and Daisyit'll be a bit of a change for her from the London scene. She sends her abject apologies, of course.'
After that, aided by fine food and good wine, Candida was aware that conversation seemed to flow quite easily. Max had a very clever way of shifting the emphasis on to her, and her life, while she was learning practically nothing about him. But what was obvious was that he adored his sister and small niece.
"I've always tended to be rather over-protective of Faith,' he admitted casually. "She's twelve years younger than me, of course, which would explain it. But she was just about to do her Finals when our parents died unexpectedly, within a few months of each other. It proved to be a testing time.' He leaned forward to pass Candida a small jug of cream for her coffee, and the girl was struck by the way his eyebrows knitted darkly in a brief frown. They must have always been very close as a family, she thought instinctively.
"Well I feel very fortunate that my father is alive and well,' she said slowly. "And still living in the cottage where I was brought up.'
"And where's that?'
"Ohan anonymous little village in South Wales.' She smiled, helping herself to sugar. "But, sadly, my mother died when I was ten, and I don't think my father has ever really got over it.' She paused for a second or two, her expression clouding. "I did try and take her place, and stayed at home for a while after college, but eventually I knew I had to get closer to London in order to succeed it's where the money is. I think it's been the best thing for both of us, because my father seems to have made a real effort to go it alone he's joined the local choir and goes on about it quite a lot! And because he's got more independent, I feel free to make my own waythough of course we're always chatting on the phone, and I visit as often as I can.'
There was silence for a moment or two, until he said suddenly, "Where d'you live, and who with?'
The question was peremptory, and Candida bristled all over again. This man was rude! Was he a lawyer? Someone used to interrogating people? she thought. He certainly had a way of cutting to the chase! She set her lips in a straight line before replying.
"I live just outside Windsormy flat is in a converted Victorian house in a rather boring street. And I don't live with anyone,' she added shortly, biting her lip. She'd parted company with Grant six months ago. They'd been a couple for more than a year, and the bitterness of their break-up was still raw and hurtful. She didn't want to be reminded of it.
"Um, well, that's a shame There should be someone to zip you up into that dress,' Max said, glancing down at her, a faintly mocking smile on his lips.
"I'm perfectly capable of zipping myself up, thanks,' Candida said flatly.
She glanced up at him quickly, a faint blush beginning to slowly colour her fine olive skin. Making personal remarks was obviously something the man enjoyed, she thought.
Presently, the meal was over, and everyone moved away to wander off and talk to other people. For those who hadn't already done a tour of the house there was a chance for them to look around, and one or two drew Candida aside to talk shop, wanting to know which suppliers she usually used, where she'd obtained the fabulous limestone tiles in the bathrooms, and there were two requests for her to visit and suggest makeovers for their own places.
Faith had been right when she'd said there'd be a lot of interest at the party in her particular way of life, Candida thought, though how much of it would actually come to definite assignments was another thing. She'd learned quite a lot about the fickleness of human nature, and aborted projects were not that unusualespecially after costs had been evaluated. But she was only too happy to answer all their queries.
During a lull, she looked around her and realised that the room was almost deserted. Her supper companion was certainly nowhere to be seen, and she shrugged inwardly. It was just like his type to shoot off at the first moment he could, she thought. Somehow, small talk and polite conversation didn't fit the persona she'd automatically labelled him with. Anyway, she was glad he'd gone, remembering again how he'd made her feel. Rick had described him as a cynic, and Candida sensed that the man was not the sort to suffer fools gladly. Not that she thought of herself as a fool, she reminded herself fiercely, but somehow she'd felt insignificant and beneath his estimation of who or what was important.
After a while, she excused herself from the small group still standing near, and went across the hall to Rick's study, which she knew would probably be empty. She needed a rest! She was definitely out of practice at these things, she thought. Why wasn't she at home now, safely tucked up under her lovely soft duvet?
Opening the door quickly, she went inside, shutting it noiselessly behind her, and without switching on the light moved over to Rick's huge armchair, which faced the window. Its plush high back gave no indication that anyone was already sitting there, but suddenly a deep voice said lazily, "Ahare you escaping too? Your perfume has given you away, Candida. Come on there's room for both of us.'