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'Ladies and gentlemenbidding will commence at half past ten exactly. That's in fifteen minutes from now.' The auctioneer's strong, commanding voice cut through the murmuring in the small sitting room and people began to take what seats were available, automatically consulting their own watches and glancing around at the competition.
Melody found a place towards the back, aware that her heart was pounding as she fingered the numbered card in her hand nervously. It stated the number thirty in large black figures and, looking down at it, she still couldn't really believe that she was here, doing this. To call it one of life's amazing coincidences seemed too trite a description. But she was here, she was not dreaming, and she was about to take part in the bidding for the rather quaint but very lovely Gatehouse Cottage. And it had certainly not been part of her present holiday plans.
Casting a surreptitious glance around her, she saw that the other interested parties were presumably the kind of eclectic bunch you'd see anywhere, she thought. Ordinary enough people, but today with a single purpose. To buy this property.
Presently there was a hush as the auctioneer took his place at the table, and straight away the atmosphere became charged with expectancy.
'We'll start the bidding at the guide price,' the man said, looking at everyone over his spectacles, 'and I'm going up in tens. Who'll start the bidding for me, please?'
There was an immediate response as someone raised a card, and Melody's breath was almost taken away at the speed with which everything proceeded. Well over the asking price was reached almost at once, before bidding began to slow as bidders shooktheir heads. Soon it was left to only four hopeful buyers to provide the entertainment. It got slower still as people dropped out one by one, and Melody's mouth was as dry as dust as she continued to raise her card.
Now that she'd started, she just could not stop. For once she was putting her business acumen and expertise into something for herand the experience was a heady one!
Soon there were only two bidders remainingherself, and a man with a deliciously deep voice at the back of the room, who was just out of her sight. She would actually have had to swivel in her seat to see who was keeping pace with her, so she continued to stare straight ahead.
Swallowing hard, Melody determined to keep on, up to the limit she'd set herselfbut equally determined seemed her opponent! But suddenly she was the last bidder, and the all-important gavel was struck sharply once, twice three times. Gatehouse Cottage was hers!
Melody got up from her place and went towards the desk, where the auctioneer beamed at her. 'Congratulations,' he said kindly.
'Thank you,' she said lightly, by this time feeling in an almost dream-like state. She could barely catch her breath. What had she just done, for heaven's sake?
There was paperwork and official business to see to, and the vital signature to append, but finally Melody left the building and went out into the strong summer sunlight, feeling as important as a middle-eastern tycoon! But she was still shaking inside She was not usually of an impetuous naturesnap decisions weren't her styleyet she had just entered into an agreement that would now make her the owner of two propertiesher apartment in London as well as this idyllic cottage in one of the most beautiful rural spots in England.
Presently, going down the path to reach her car, she almost bumped into someone standing there. A man was leaning noncha-lantly against the gatepost, and Melody immediately looked up to apologisealmost swallowing her tongue as she met the searching gaze of the most blue-black eyes she'd ever seen! For a second neither of them spoke, but she was the first to find her voice.
'Oh, I beg your pardon,' she murmured, rather formally, stepping out of his waybut he didn't attempt to move, just stood looking down at her, a faint smile on his lips.
'There's nothing to apologise for,' he said casually, in a darkly rich voice that had the effect of making Melody's spine tingle unexpectedly. 'Except, perhaps,'he added, 'for pipping me at the post just now.' He paused. 'Congratulations, by the way,' he drawled.
So! This was the other determined bidder who'd helped to force the price of the cottage ever higher! He was tallvery talland dressed in dark trousers and a shirt which was open at the neck to reveal a tantalising glimpse of black curling hair. Melody looked away quickly.
'Ohwell ' she said, shrugging slightly. 'There must always be winners and losers, mustn't there? But I do hope I haven't ruined your long-term plans too much '
He raised one dark eyebrow, still staring at her. 'I'll live to fight another day,' he said. He paused. 'But I think the least you can do is to let me buy you some lunch.' He glanced at his watch. 'It's almost midday, and I know a really great pub. I'm hungry after all that tension.'
Melody couldn't help feeling surprised at his suggestion. This man was obviously a fast worker who didn't believe in hanging aroundthe sort of opportunist that made her feel slightly wary. Then she bit her lip. She'd been too excitedor too nervous to eat any breakfast at her hotel that morning, and now that she'd secured the deal her appetite was coming back to life!
'All right,' she said, after a moment. 'Why not? 'I'm Mel, by the way.'
'And I'm Adam.' He extended a tanned hand in formal greeting, and grinned in a warm, all-embracing way that had the effect of breaking down any remaining reserve Melody might have felt at accepting an invitation from a complete stranger.
Their cars were parked a little way away along the deserted road. Everyone else had obviously departed. Melody wasn't surprised to see that his was a low-slung, exotic red Porsche. Her own compact Mercedes seemed rather staid by comparison.
'We might as well go in mine,' Adam said briefly, as he flicked the automatic key to unlock his door. 'I can drop you back later.'
'Oh, no, thanks,' Melody said at once. 'I'll follow you to wherever you're taking me. I'll probably want to go on somewhere afterwards, anyway.'
She'd been taught from a very young age not to take anyone at face value, and knew better than to put herself in any kind of vulnerable position. Yet this smooth, suave, unknown male obviously used to trading on his undoubted good-lookshad coolly invited her out to lunch and she'd agreed straight away! This was not like her, she thought, as she got into her car. But today was a pretty exceptional one, she excused herself. In fact, now that she really thought about it, she knew it was a fantastic day! A day to remember, to savour! Enjoy the moment, she told herself. Reality would become apparent all too soon.
Starting the engine and slipping her car into gear, she followed the Porsche along the blissfully uncluttered roads at a much more respectable pace than she'd imagined they might. He'd seemed the type who'd take pleasure in roaring away in front of her and expect her to keep up with his dizzying assault on the numerous twists and bends they encountered. His whole persona came across as confident, self-assureda natural leader, accustomed to success and its trappings, Melody thought, and he'd had no problem in getting her to join him for lunch today! But following him on an enjoyable run on this perfect July day had the effect of sending her spirits soaring. If only her mother, Frances, was here now, to share this special morning with her, she thought, her eyes clouding briefly.
In about fifteen minutes they arrived at an insignificant-looking wayside pub, and pulled up simultaneously in the car park at the front. Adam immediately came over and opened her door for her to get out, and Melody was consciousnot for the first timeof how he looked at her, how he was obviously scrutinising her appearance. She hoped he approved of her white designer trousers and navy and white striped shirtan outfit she felt was simple but elegantly casual. Her long fair hair she'd tied up in a heavy knot on the top of her headthe style she always used in business. And, after all, today had been businessthough not the sort that she was usually engaged in. Drawing her hair back formally had the effect of complementing the perfect bone structure of her heart-shaped face, her thoughtful grey-green eyes and full-lipped mouth.
Without making any comment, Adam handed her out of the car, and together they walked along the gravelled path to the entrance of the pub. The place was obviously popular, because already it was comfortably full of people. He ushered Melody to a vacant corner table by the window, and looked down at her as she took her seat.
'What are you drinking, Mel?' he asked.
'Just a sparkling water, please,' she said, and he raised his eyebrows slightly.
'No champagne to celebrate your success today?'
She smiled up at him. 'I'll keep that for some other time,' she said.
She watched him as he went over to stand amongst the jostling crowd at the bar, easily the most noticeable person there. He was taller than anyone else, for a start, she thought, his lithe, athletic body obviously demonstrating a robust and healthy physique. Heavens above, she thought to herself crossly. The day had been enough of an explosive affair as it was surely she wasn't being blown away by someone she'd probably never see again? Was she that fickle, that pathetic, after losing Crispin not all that long ago? Blame it on today, she excused herself. Today had a definitely weird feel about it!
Presently he came back with their drinksher water, and a pint of lager for himselfand put a lunch menu in front of her.
'I can recommend the crab cakes,' he said, glancing down at his own copy. 'With the coast so near, the fish is fresh here daily. Or,' he added, looking across at her briefly, 'the barbecued sea bass is also very good.'
By this time Melody's mouth was watering, and she was prompt with her selection. 'I love fish cakes,' she said, 'and I don't often have the chance to eat fresh crab. So crab cakes, please, with a green salad.'
'You're obviously a woman of quick decisions,' he said. 'When I bring people here it usually takes them longer to choose what they want than it does to eat the stuff.'
He got up and went across to order at the bar, glancing back at her as she stared out of the window. This was an unusual woman, he thought. Apart from being very, very, beautiful, she was overtly well dressed, sophisticated, and clearly with a very firm head on her shoulders. The sort of female who knew exactly what she wanted in life and was determined to get it. He'd known many women in his thirty-eight years, but he had the distinct feeling that no one would ever get the better of this one in an argument! She was the kind of woman you wouldn't want to cross, but something about herespecially when he'd observed her at the auctionhad excited his curiosity and made him want to find out about her. Who she was and more im-portantly why she was taking possession of Gatehouse Cottage.
He returned to sit opposite her. 'So,' he said without preamble, 'you're not from around here, are you?' Well, of course she wasn't he'd have noticed!
Melody sipped at her water. 'No. I live and work in London,' she said briefly. 'I'm here on holiday for a few weeks.'
Adam frowned. 'But the auction,' he said slowly. 'How did you know about the cottage being for sale?'
'I was in the village looking around a few days ago and saw the sign. I went into the agent's office and made some enquiries. And decided to go for it.' She looked up at him calmly, and he stared back at her for a second.
'Do you do that sort of thing often?' he asked. 'I mean, people usually like to buy little mementoes to bring back from a holiday, but a cottage seems rather excessive!'
Melody smiled. 'I agree,' she said. And I've never done such a thing in my life before But I was attracted to the place It felt special as soon as I stepped inside. It felt right, somehow,' she added guardedly.
Adam seemed lost for words suddenly, but her answer only confirmed his opinion of the woman. She knew what she wanted and was going to get it. Whatever the cost. And, talking of cost, she must have the wherewithal to do it, he thought. Not many people had that amount of money instantly at their fingertips!
'Do you live locally?' Melody asked, deciding that it was his turn to answer some questions.
'No. I work in Malaysia, where I obviously have to live for most of the time,' Adam said. 'But I always take a long break here, with friends, at about this time every year. Abroad is fine, but rural England is where I feel normal.'
Melody looked away for a second.
'I'm really sorry to have beaten you at the auction this morning,' she said simply. 'I hope you'll be able to find somewhere else before too long. Not that there seemed much else on offer here I suppose people just never want to leave the place.'
'You're not sorry at all,' he said cheerfully. 'Besides, someone has to win a battleas you pointed outand this time it was you. Maybe there'll be another occasion when I'll have the advantage.'
'Oh, I can't see that happening,' Melody said at once. 'I will not be purchasing another property for a very long timeif ever. A flat in London and a cottage in the country are quite enough for one person to worry about!'
Their meals arrived, and Melody couldn't wait to try the crisp, piping hot crab cakes nestling amongst just the right amount of delicious-looking dressed salad. She picked up her knife and fork and looked across at Adam.
'This all looks yummy!' she exclaimed.
He watched her for a few seconds without starting his own meal. Then, 'What do you intend doing about your living arrangements?' he asked bluntly.
'D'you mean when will I be moving in to the cottage?' Melody asked innocently, between mouthfuls. 'Oh, that's anyone's guess. The previous elderly owner had been there for some years and hadn't done much to the placeso there's obviously some work to do. Everything's still sound enough, but it'll need decorating throughout, and I shall have great fun choosing the right sort of furniture. It's going to be so wonderful to relax here whenever I can get away.' She looked across at him, popping a cherry tomato into her mouth, her eyes shining at the prospect.