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The view of the sunset over sweeping lawns and tree-fringed lake was so perfect the dining room could have been part of a film set.
Sarah's escort smiled at her in satisfaction. 'You obviously approve of my choice, darling?'
'Of course. Who wouldn't?' But she was surprised by it. Oliver normally wined and dined her in more conservative restaurants, where the cuisine was less haute than Easthope Court. 'Is this a special occasion?'
His eyes slid away. 'Let's leave explanations until later. Our meal is on its way.'
The waiter set Sarah's entrée in front of her, and with a hint of flourish removed the cover from an offering of such culinary art she looked at the plate in awe, not sure whether she should eat it or frame it. But instead of sharing that with someone who took his food as seriously as Oliver, she asked about his latest triumph in court.
Sarah listened attentively as she ate, made appropriate comments at intervals, but at last laid down her knife and fork, defeated. Artistic creation or not, the meal was so substantial she couldn't finish it.
'You didn't care for the lobster?' asked Oliver anxiously.
'It was lovely, but I ate too much of that gorgeous bread before it arrived.'
He beckoned a waiter over. 'Choose a pudding, then, while I excuse myself for a moment. Cheese as usual for me, Sarah.'
She gave the order and sat back, eyeing her surroundings with interest. The other women present—some young, others not—were dressed with varying success in red-carpet-type couture, but their male escorts were largely on the mature side. Though a younger man at table nearby caught her eye, if only because his head of thick, glossy hairstood out like a bronze helmet among his balding male companions. He raised his glass in smiling toast, and Sarah looked away, flushing, as Oliver rejoined her.
'So what are we celebrating?' she demanded, as he began on a wedge of Stilton.
'Now, you must always remember, Sarah,' he began, 'that I have your best interests at heart.'
Her heart sank. 'Go on.'
Oliver reached out a hand to touch hers. 'Sweetheart, there's a vacancy coming up in my chambers next month. Make me happy; give up this obsession of yours and take the job. With your logical brain I'm sure you'd enjoy legal work.'
Sarah's colour, already high, rose a notch. 'You mean you brought me here just to pitch the same old story? Oliver, I love you very much,' she said with complete truth, 'and I know you care about me, but you really must let me live my life my own way.'
'But I just can't believe it's the right way!' Oliver sat back, defeated. 'I hate to think of you messing about with plaster and paint all day in that slum you bought.'
'Oliver,' she said patiently, 'it's what I do. It's what I know how to do. And I love doing it. I'd be useless—and miserable—as a legal secretary, even in illustrious chambers like yours.'
'But you're obviously not taking care of yourself or eating properly—'
'If you just wanted to feed me before I go back to starving in my garret you needn't have wasted money on a place like this,' she informed him.
'I chose somewhere special because it's my birthday tomorrow,' he said with dignity. 'I hoped you'd enjoy helping me celebrate it.'
'Oh Oliver!' Sarah felt a sharp pang of remorse. 'If you're trying to make me feel guilty you're succeeding. I'm sorry. But I can't take the job. Not even to celebrate your birthday.'
He nodded, resigned. 'Ah, well, it was worth a try. We won't let it spoil our evening. Thank you for the witty birthday card, by the way, but you shouldn't have bought a present.'
'Didn't you like the cravat?'
'Of course I liked it. But it was much too expensive—'
'Nothing too good for my one and only godfather!'
Oliver smiled fondly. 'That's so sweet of you, darling, and of course I'll wear it with pride. But you need to watch your pennies.' He leaned nearer and touched her hand. 'You do know, Sarah, that if you're in need of any kind you only have to ask.'
'Thank you, Oliver, of course I do.' But she'd have to be in dire straits before she would.
As they got up to leave, the man Sarah had noticed earlier hurried to intercept them.
Oliver beamed as he shook the outstretched hand. 'Why, hello there, young man. I didn't know you were here.'
'You were too absorbed in your beautiful companion to notice me, Mr Moore.' He turned to Sarah with a crooked smile. 'Hello. I'm Alex Merrick.'
Quick resentment quenched her unexpected pang of disappointment. And as if his name wasn't enough, something in his smile made it plain he thought Oliver was her elderly—and wealthy—sugar daddy.
'Sarah Carver,' she returned, surprised to see comprehension flare in the piercingly light eyes in an angular face that was striking rather than good-looking.
'Sarah is helping me celebrate my birthday,' Oliver informed him.
'Congratulations! It must be an important one to bring you down from London for the occasion.'
'Not really—unless you count each day as an achievement at my age. I'll be sixty-four come midnight,' said Oliver with a sigh, and made a visible effort to suck in his stomach.
'That's just your prime, sir,' Alex assured him. 'Are you from London, too, Miss Carver?'
'She is originally.' Oliver answered for her. 'But Sarah moved to this part of the world last year. I've been trying to persuade her to return to civilisation, but with no success. She's in property development,' he added proudly.
'Snap. That's partly my bag, too,' Alex told her.
Oliver laughed comfortably. 'Not exactly on the same scale,' he informed Sarah. 'Alex is the third generation of his family to run the Merrick Group.'
'How interesting,' she said coolly, and smiled up at Oliver. 'Darling, it's past my bedtime.'
'Right,' he said promptly, and put his arm round her to lead her away. 'Nice seeing you again, young man. My regards to your father.'
Alex Merrick's eyes travelled from Oliver's arm to Sarah's face with a look that brought her resentment to boiling point. 'I hope we meet again.'
'You weren't very friendly,' commented Oliver in the car park. 'You might do well to cultivate young Alex, darling. The Merrick name carries clout in these parts.'
'Not with me,' Sarah said fiercely.
The journey home was tiring. Oliver returned to his proposition, and argued all the way, but when he paused to draw breath Sarah told him it would turn her life upside down again to move back to London.
'I did all that in reverse not so long ago, Oliver. I don't fancy doing it again for a while, if at all. I like living in the wilds, as you call it—'
'But what do you do with yourself in the evenings, for God's sake?'
Glossing over the weariness which more often than not sent her early to bed with a book, Sarah said something vague about cinema trips and concerts, hoping Oliver wouldn't ask for details.
'A lot different from London,' he commented, as they reached Medlar House.
'Which is entirely the point, Oliver. Would you like some coffee?'
'No, thank you, darling. I'll head straight back to Hereford. I'm meeting with a local solicitor first thing in the morning.'
She leaned across and kissed him. 'Thank you for the wonderful dinner, and for the job offer. But do stop worrying about me. I'll be fine.'
'I hope so,' he said with a sigh. 'You know where I am if you need me.'
'I do.' She patted his cheek. 'Happy birthday for tomorrow, Oliver.'
Sarah waved him off, and with a yawn made for her ground-floor retreat in a building which had once housed an elite school for girls. Advertised as a studio flat, when the school had been converted into apartments, she'd agreed to take a look at it without much hope. It had been the last on the list of remotely possible flats shown her by the estate agent, who had rattled through his patter at such speed he'd been unaware that the moment she'd walked through the door Sarah fell in love.
The agent had given her the hard sell, emphasising that it was the last available in her price range in the building, and offered interesting individual touches.
'If you mean a ceiling four metres high and one wall composed entirely of windows,' Sarah remarked. 'Heat loss must be a problem.'
Crestfallen, the young man had informed her that it had once been a music room, which explained the lofty dimensions, and then he'd pointed out its view of the delightful gardens and repeated his spiel about the building's security. Sarah had heard him out politely, and when he'd eventually run out of steam, he saw her back to her car, promising to ring her in the morning with other possibilities.
She'd forced herself to wait until he rang, praying that no one had beaten her to it overnight with the flat. When his call finally came he'd given her details of a riverside apartment. Way out of her price range, she'd told him, and then as an apparent afterthought mentioned that since there was nothing else suitable on his current list she might as well take another look at the Medlar House bedsit. He'd uttered shocked protests at the term for such a picturesque studio flat, but once they were back in the lofty, sunlit room again Sarah had listed its disadvantages as her opening shot, then begun haggling. At last the agent had taken out his phone to consult a higher authority, and agreement had been reached on a price well below the maximum Sarah had been prepared to pay to live in Medlar House—which, quite apart from its other attractions, was only a short drive from the row of farm cottages she was about to transform into desirable dwellings.
All that seemed a lifetime ago. Feeling restless after her unaccustomed evening out, Sarah loosened her hair, then sat at the narrow trestle table that served as desk, drawing board, and any other function required of it. She booted up her laptop, did a search, and gave a snort of laughter. To say that Sarah Carver and Alexander Merrick were both in property was such a stretch it was ludicrous. These days the Merrick Group also had extensive manufacturing interests, at home and abroad—and the biggest buzzword of all—it was into recycling on a global scale. She closed the laptop in sudden annoyance. It was irrational to feel so hostile still. But the look the man had given her had annoyed her intensely. Oliver was sixty-three—she glanced at her watch—sixty-four now. She was almost forty years his junior. So of course Merrick Mark Three had jumped to the wrong conclusion about Oliver's role in her life. Her eyes kindled. As if she cared.
She went through her night-time routine in her minuscule bathroom, then climbed up to her sleeping balcony and hung up the little black dress she hadn't worn for ages. She got into bed and stretched out to gaze down through the balustrade at the moonlight streaming through the shutters, hoping the lobster wouldn't give her nightmares. She had to be up early next morning, as usual. The first of the cottages was coming along nicely, and once furnished it would function as a show house to tempt buyers for the others in the row. Harry Sollers, the local builder who worked with her, would be there before her, in case, as sometimes happened, he knocked off half an hour early to do a job for a friend.
When the row of cottages had gone up for sale by sealed auction Harry's circle of cronies at his local pub had fully expected some big company to demolish them and pack as many new houses as possible on the site. When the news had broken that a developer from London had snaffled the property there had been much morose shaking of heads in the Green Man—until the landlord had surprised his clients by reporting that the property developer was a young woman, and she was looking for someone local to work on the cottages. At which point Harry Sollers—semi-retired master builder, committed bachelor and misogynist—had amazed everyone in the bar by saying he might be interested.
Sarah never ceased to be grateful that, due to Harry Sollers' strong views on the demolition of perfectly good living accommodation, he'd agreed to abandon semi-retirement to help her turn the one-time farm labourers' cottages into attractive, affordable homes. Gradually Harry had helped her sort out damp courses, retile the roofs, and deal with various basic faults shown up by the building survey. He had been openly sceptical about her own skills until he'd seen proof of them, but openly impressed when he first saw her plastering a wall, and completely won over the day she took a lump hammer to the boards covering up the original fireplaces.
But from the start Harry had drawn very definite lines about his own capabilities, and told Sarah she would need to employ local craftsmen for specialised jobs. He'd enlisted his nephew's experienced help with the cottage roofs, recommended a reliable electrician to do the rewiring, and for the plumbing contacted his friend Fred Carter, who soon proved he was top-of-the-tree at his craft. The houses had begun to look like real homes once the quality fittings were in place, but to his surprise Sarah had informed Fred that she would do the tiling herself, as well as fit the cupboards in both bathrooms and kitchens.
'I'm good at that kind of thing,' she'd assured him, without conceit.
This news had caused a stir in the Green Man.
'You might have to put up with a few sightseers now and again, boss, just to prove Fred wasn't having them on,' Harry had warned her.
He was right. Harry's cronies had come to look. But once they'd seen her at work they'd agreed that the city girl knew what she was doing.
But much as she enjoyed her work there were days when Sarah felt low-key, and the next day was one of them—which was probably due to Oliver and his coaxing about the vacancy in his chambers. It was certainly nothing to do with the lobster, which had not, after all, given her nightmares. Nor, she assured herself irritably, was it anything to do with meeting Alex Merrick. She'd slept well and risen early, as usual. Nevertheless her mood today was dark. She would just have to work through it. Fortunately Harry was never a ray of sunshine first thing in the morning either, and wouldn't notice. But for once she was wrong.
'You're early—and you don't look so clever today,' Harry commented.
'I was out socialising last night,' she informed him, and went on with the cupboard door she was hanging.
His eyebrows shot up. 'Who was the lucky lad, then?'