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Pushing her foot down on the accelerator, she coaxed her geriatric Volkswagen to increase its speed and as it settled into its maximum, a trundling fifty, she began to brood.
First, she had received a letter from her major customer advising her that, due to the current slump in trade, they were closing a couple of their shops; which robbed her of two outlets. Anya frowned at the spring-green hedges which edged the winding country lane. This morning she intended to replace those outlets, yet they would still be a loss and she could ill afford to lose business.
Second, when she had collected Oliver from school, his teacher had told her that he had got into an uncharacteristic and astonishingly fierce fight with another little boy and couldn't-or wouldn't-say why.
And, third, when Roger Adlam had deposited her at her gate after the village inn's monthly quiz night, he had snaked a lecherous arm around her, yanked her close and kissed her. Anya grimaced. Despite her protests that all she wanted was for them to be friends, platonic friends, might the sleek-haired young farmer attempt to kiss her again? She hoped not. She hoped he would not start to pressurise.
But there was no time to fret about the local Casanova now. She must concentrate on this morning's appointments and how she was going to persuade the gift-shop owners to stock her goods. Fleetingly Anya's gaze dipped to her cream georgette blouse and slim-fitting black leather trousers. As well as having made up her face with special care-mushroom eyeshadow, a touch of blusher, rosy lip-gloss -she was wearing what she privately termed her 'sock it to 'em' outfit and hopefully her appearance, plus an earnest spiel about the value and marketability of her dried-flower specialities, should-
As she rounded a corner, Anya blinked. Just a few yards ahead, a plump brown-speckled hen pheasant was promenading like a cheer-leader straight towards her. "Move!" she yelled, and when it took no notice she swerved frantically to the other side of the narrow road. "Help!" she shrieked, for she was hurtling off the road, through a fortuitously placed opening to a field and ploughing into a jungle of high ferns. Behind her, the pheasant continued to high-step serenely on its way.
Clutching at the steering wheel, Anya stamped down hard on the brake. There was a second erratic swerve, a bone-jarring series of judders as she ricocheted from one sneakily hidden boulder and against another, then the car slewed to a halt. Fortunately, for ahead she had glimpsed the sparkle of water. Cutting the engine, Anya drew in a shaky breath. The entire incident had lasted seconds, yet it took a full minute before she summoned up the strength to release her seat belt.
Fearfully, she turned. The back of the Beetle was filled with boxes of garlands, candleholder posies, bookmarks et cetera, but-praise be-her tight-wedged packing had kept them safe from harm, and whilst the flower arrangements in the luggage pit had suffered a few broken grasses they could be easily fixed. But what about her car?
Anya clambered out and, on jelly legs, walked around to the front. Dismay crashed over her in cold waves. The wing looked as if it had been beaten by a maniac with a sledgehammer and there were dents on both the door and rear panel. Repair bills were destined to be sizeable.
"Oh, no!" she wailed.
Tears threatened and for a moment Anya was tempted to sink to her knees and sob, but then her shoulders were straightened. She did not have too much time and, right now, her priority must be to mend those dried-flower arrangements. With what? she wondered, and peered ahead. The water which had sparkled was a sunlit pond. It lay in a tranquil hollow, overhung with trees and edged by reeds which grew in tall thickets.
Anya made her way down to the reeds and began to gather a selection. Spotting a particularly suitable honey-coloured bunch, she stepped closer to the water and crouched. She was in the process of deciding which stems to break off when a stone whizzed past her ear and crashed with a plonk into the pond, right in front of her.
"Eee-oww!" she gasped as plumes of water sprayed into the air, subjecting her to a cold and impromptu shower.
Anya struggled upright. Strands of sodden russet-brown hair hung over her eyes in a dripping curtain, trickles ran down her cheeks, her clothes were spattered with damply spreading circles. Minutes earlier she had been tempted to sob, but now she wanted to scream. And jump up and down in a frenzy. And punch things. Hard. She swiped the wet hair back from her brow. The jay-walking pheasant might have got clean away after committing its crime, but, she vowed furiously, the stone-thrower would not.
Anya swivelled. Her gaze narrowed. Off to one side and on the bank beyond the rushes stood a dark-haired man in a charcoal-grey suit. He was tall, well over six feet, with broad flat shoulders and lean hips. He had a strong jaw, fine-chiselled straight nose and a full mouth. She frowned. She had expected the culprit to be a child or some scruffy adolescent, not a suave business executive who, at a guess, was in his mid-thirties.
Her fingers curling tight around the reeds which she had gathered, and bent on denunciation, Anya stalked forward. Her progress was regal, until a drip formed at the end of her nose and she needed to back-hand it away. Then wet collected like grease on her chin and that had to be smeared off too. As she approached, her frown hardened into a glare. Instead of looking meekly repentant and subdued as his sin demanded, the man appeared to be fighting against amusement. His eyes had crinkled at the corners and his mouth was twitching.
Anya's hackles rose. How dared he? On another day and in another mood, she might have conceded that there was something comical about her hoity-toity drowned rat image, too, but coming after her near miss with the pheasant and the damage to her car his barely concealed grin was an insult. An infuriating impertinence.
"I'm very sorry," he said as she marched up to confront him.
"So you damn well should be!" Anya snapped. "And it isn't funny."
His blue eyes sobered and his mouth was schooled. "No, no, not at all," the man agreed, and bowed a courteous head. "Please forgive me."
She glowered. He might look dutifully apologetic, yet there had been something in the mellifluous, liquorice-dark baritone which hinted at continuing humour. So was he apologising for dousing her or merely for his urge to laugh?
"It never occurred to you that throwing stones when there are other people around is stupid and infantile and dangerous?" Anya demanded, castigating him with each word. "Or don't you care?"
"I care," he responded, and there was no humour now, just firm assertion. "However, I believed I was all alone."
She gave a derisive grunt. Who was he trying to kid? "You must've heard me arrive," she declared, and swung a hand to where the pale blue roof of the Volkswagen was visible amongst the ferns. "I hit a couple of boulders, hard," Anya said, with a frown. "So how on earth you could've missed the noise I can't imagine."
"I missed it because I was on the telephone," the man told her.
"A portable. Inside my car. Over there," he said, gesturing towards a gleaming black sports car which was parked beyond a tree. "How on earth you haven't noticed it I can't imagine," he murmured, when Anya looked at the vehicle in wide-eyed surprise.
Her backbone stiffened. "You could've killed me with that stone," she declared.
"Much as I hate to contradict a lady, I think not. It may have created one heck of a splash, but it was little more than a pebble." He turned towards his car. "I have a towel; I'll get it for you."
Excerpted from Intimate Relations by Elizabeth Oldfield Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.