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'What do you mean, she won't sell?' Raffaele Caffarelli frowned at his London-based secretary.
Margaret Irvine turned her palms over in a 'don't blame me' gesture. 'Miss Silverton flatly refused your offer.'
'Then make her a bigger one.' 'I did. She refused that too.'
Rafe drummed his fingers on the desk for a moment. He hadn't been expecting a hiccup like this at this stage. Everything had gone smoothly up until now. He'd had no trouble acquiring the stately English countryside manor and surrounding land in Oxfordshire for a bargain price. But the dower house was on a separate titlea minor problem, or so he'd been led to believe by his business manager, as well as the estate agent. The agent had assured him it would be easy enough to acquire the dower house so that the Dalrymple Estate could be whole once more; all he would have to do was to offer well above the market value. Rafe had been generous in his offer. Like the rest of the estate, the place was run down and badly needed a makeover, and he had the money needed to bring it back to its former glory and turn it into a masterpiece of English style and decadence. What was the woman thinking? How could she be in her right mind to turn down an offer as good as his?
He wasn't going to give up on this. He had seen the property listed online and got his business manager, Jameswho was going to be fired if this didn't get sorted out soonto secure it for him.
Failure was not a word anyone would dare to associate with the name Raffaele Caffarelli. He was not going to let a little hurdle like this get in the way of what he wanted. 'Do you think this Silverton woman's somehow found out it's me who's bought Dalrymple Manor?'
'Who knows?' Margaret shrugged. 'But I wouldn't have thought so. We've managed to keep the press away from this so far. James handled all the paperwork under cover and I made the offer to Miss Silverton via the agent, as you instructed. You don't know her personally, do you?'
'No, but I've met her type before.' Rafe curled his lip cynically. 'Once she gets a whiff that it's a wealthy developer after her house, she'll go for broke. She'll try and milk every penny she can out of me.' He let out a short sharp expletive. 'I want that property. I want all of that property.'
Margaret pushed a folder across the desk to him. 'I found some news clippings from the local village from a couple of years ago about the old man who owned the manor. It seems the late Lord Dalrymple had rather a soft spot for Poppy Silverton and her grandmother. Beatrice Silverton was the head housekeeper at the manor. Apparently she worked there for years and'
'Gold-digger,' Rafe muttered.
'Who? The grandmother?'
He shoved his chair back and got to his feet. 'I want you to find out everything you can about this woman Polly. I want her'
'Poppy. Her name is Poppy.'
Rafe rolled his eyes and continued. 'Poppy, then. I want her background, her boyfriendseven her bra size. Leave no stone unturned. I want it on my desk first thing Monday morning.'
Margaret's neatly pencilled eyebrows lifted but the rest of her expression remained in 'obedient secretary' mode. 'I'll get working on it right away.'
Rafe paced the floor as his secretary gathered a stack of documents to be filed from his desk. Maybe he should head down and have a little snoop around the village himself. He'd only seen the manor and the surrounding area from the photos James had emailed him. It wouldn't hurt to have a little reconnaissance trip of his own to size up the enemy, so to speak.
He snatched up his keys. 'I'm heading out of town for the weekend. Anything urgent, call me, otherwise I'll see you on Monday.'
'Who's the lucky girl this time?' Margaret gathered the bundle of paperwork against her chest. 'Is it still the Californian bikini-model or is she yesterday's news?'
He shrugged on his jacket. 'This may surprise you, but I'm planning to spend this weekend on my own.' He stopped pulling down his left shirt cuff to glower at her. 'What's that look for?'
His secretary gave him a knowing smile.' You haven't spent a weekend on your own since I don't know when.'
'So?' He gave her another brooding frown. 'There's a first time for everything, isn't there?'
Poppy was bending over to clear table three when the door of her tearoom opened on Saturday afternoon. Even with her back to the door she knew it wasn't one of her regulars. The tinkling chime of the bell sounded completely different. She turned around with a welcoming smile, but it faltered for a moment as she encountered an open shirt-collar and a glimpse of a tanned masculine chest at the height she'd normally expect to see someone's face.
She tilted her head right back to meet a pair of brown eyes that were so intensely dark they looked almost black. The staggeringly handsome face with its late-in-the-day stubble seemed vaguely familiar. A movie star, perhaps? A celebrity of some sort? She flicked through her mental hard-drive but couldn't place him. 'Um, a table for ?'
A table for one? Poppy mentally rolled her eyes. He didn't look the 'table for one' type. He looked the type who would have a veritable harem of adoring women trailing after him wherever he went.
Maybe he was a model, one of those men's aftershave onesthe ones that looked all designer stubbly, masculine and bad-boy broody in those glossy magazine advertisements.
But who went to old-world tearooms on their own? That was what the coffee chain stores were forsome-where to linger for hours over a macchiato and a muffin and mooch through a raft of the day's papers.
Poppy's stomach suddenly dropped in alarm. Was he a food critic? Oh, dear God! Was she about to be savaged in some nasty little culinary blog that would suddenly go viral and ruin everything for her? She was struggling to keep afloat as it was. Things had been deadly quiet since that swanky new restaurantwhich she couldn't even name or think of without wanting to throw upopened in the next village. The down-turn in the economy meant people weren't treating themselves to the luxury of high tea any more.
They saved their pennies and went out to dinner insteadat her ex-boyfriend's restaurant.
Poppy studied the handsome stranger covertly as she led him to table four. 'How about over here?' She pulled out a chair as she tried to place the faint trace of an accent. French? Italian? A bit of both, perhaps? 'You get a lovely view of Dalrymple Manor and the maze in the distance.'
He gave the view a cursory glance before turning back to her. Poppy felt a little shock like volts of electricity shooting through her body when that dark-as-night gaze meshed with hers. God, how gorgeous was his mouth! So masculine and firm with that sinfully sensual, fuller lower lip. Why on earth didn't he sit down? She would have a crick in her neck for the rest of the day.
'Is that some sort of tourist attraction?' he asked. 'It looks like something out of a Jane Austen novel.'
She gave him a wry look. 'It's the only tourist attraction, not that it's open to the public or anything.'
'It looks like a rather grand place.'
'It's a fabulous place.' Poppy released a wistful little sigh. 'I spent most of my childhood there.'
A dark brow arched up in a vaguely interested manner. 'Oh really?'
'My grandmother used to be the housekeeper for Lord Dalrymple. She started at the manor when she was fifteen and stayed until the day he died. She never once thought of getting another job. You don't get loyalty like that any more, do you?'
'Indeed you don't.'
'She passed away within six months of him.' Poppy sighed again. 'The doctors said it was an aneurysm, but personally I think she didn't know what to do with herself once he'd gone.'
'So who lives there now?'
'No one at the moment,' she said. 'It's been vacant for over a year while the probate was sorted out on Lord Dalrymple's will. There's a new owner but no one knows who it is or what they plan to do with the place. We're all dreading the thought that it's been sold to some crazy, money-hungry developer with no taste. Another part of our local history will be lost for ever under some ghastly construction called' she put her fingers up to signify quotation marks 'modern architecture.'
'Aren't there laws to prevent that from happening?'
'Yes, well, some people with loads of money think they're above the law.' Poppy gave a disdainful, rolling flicker of her eyes. 'The more money they have, the more power they seem to expect to wield. It makes my blood boil. Dalrymple Manor needs to be a family home again, not some sort of playboy party-palace.'
'It looks rather a large property for the average family of today,' he observed. 'There must be three storeys at least.'
'Four,' she said. 'Five, if you count the cellar. But it needs a family. It's been crying out for one ever since Lord Dalrymple's wife died in childbirth all those years ago.'
'I take it he didn't marry again?'
'Clara was the love of his life and once she died that was that,' she said. 'He didn't even look at another woman. You don't get that sort of commitment these days, do you?'
'Indeed you don't.'
Poppy handed him a menu to bridge the little silence that had ensued. Why was she talking about loyalty and commitment to a perfect stranger? Chloe, her assistant, was right: maybe she did need to get out more. Oliver's betrayal had made her horribly cynical. He had wooed her and then exploited her in the worst way imaginable. He hadn't wanted her; he'd used her knowledge and expertise to set up a rival business. How gullible she had been to fall for it! She still shuddered to think about how close she had come to sleeping with him. 'Um, we have a special cake of the day. It's a ginger sponge with raspberry jam and cream.'
The dark-haired man ignored the menu and sat down. 'Just coffee.'
Poppy blinked. She had forty varieties of specialty teas and he wanted coffee? 'Oh right. What sort? We have cappuccino, latte'
'Double-shot espresso. Black, no sugar.'
Would it hurt you to crack a smile? What was it with some men? And who the hell went to a tearoom to drink coffee?
There was something about him that made Poppy feel prickly and defensive. She couldn't help feeling he was mocking her behind those dark, unreadable eyes. Was it her Edwardian dress and frilly apron? Was it her red-gold curly hair bunched up under her little mobcap? Did he think she was a little bit behind the times? That was the whole point of Poppy's Teasit was an old-world experience, a chance to leave the 'rush, rush, rush' pace of the modern world behind while you enjoyed a good old-fashioned cup of tea and home baking just like your great-great granny used to make.
'Coming right up.' Poppy swung away, carried her tray back to the kitchen and put it down on the counter top with a little rattle of china cups.
Chloe looked up from where she was sandwiching some melting moments with butter-cream. 'What's wrong? You look a little flushed.' She narrowed her gaze to slits. 'Don't tell me that two-timing jerk Oliver has come in with his slutty new girlfriend just to rub salt in the wound. When I think of the way he pinched all of those wonderful recipes of yours to pass them off as his own creation I want to cut off his you-know-whats and serve them as an entree in his totally rubbish restaurant.'
'No.' Poppy frowned as she unloaded the tray. 'It's just some guy I have a feeling I've seen somewhere before '
Chloe put down her knife and tiptoed over to peek through the glass of the swing door. 'Oh. My. God.' She turned back to Poppy with wide eyes. 'It's one of the Three Rs.'
Poppy screwed up her face. 'One of the what?'
'The Caffarelli brothers,' Chloe said in a hushed voice. 'There's three of them. Raffaele, Raoul and Remy. Rafe is the oldest. They're French-Italian squillionaires. The seriously-silver-spoon set: private jets, fast cars and even faster women.'
Poppy gave her head a little toss as she went to the coffee machine. 'Well, for all that money it certainly hasn't taught him any manners. He didn't even say please or thank you.' She gave the knob of the machine a savage little twist. 'Nor did he smile.'
Chloe peeked through the glass panel again. 'Maybe you don't have to be nice to horribly common people like us when you're filthy rich.'
'My gran used to say you can tell a lot about a person by the way they respect people they don't have to respect,' Poppy said. 'Lord Dalrymple was a shining example of it. He treated everyone the same. It didn't matter if they were a cleaner or a corporate king.'
Chloe came back to the melting moments and picked up her butter-cream knife. 'I wonder what he's doing in our little backwater village? We're not exactly on the tourist trail these days. The new motorway took care of that.'
Poppy's hand froze on the espresso machine. 'It's him.'
'He's the new owner of Dalrymple Manor.' Poppy ground her teeth as she faced her assistant. 'He's the one who wants to turf me out of my home. I knew there was something funny about that woman who came by the other day with that pushy agent. I bet he sent her to do his dirty work for him.'
'Uh-oh ' Chloe winced. 'I know what this means.'
Poppy straightened her shoulders and pasted a plastic-looking smile on her face. 'You're right.' She picked up the steaming double-shot espresso as she headed towards the door leading out to the tearoom. 'This means war.'
Rafe cast an eye around the quaint tearoom. It was like stepping back in time. It gave him a sort of spooky time-warp sensation where he almost expected a First World War soldier to walk in the door with an elegantly dressed lady on his arm. The delicious smell of home baking filled the air. Fresh cottage flowers were on the dainty tablessweet peas, forget-me-nots and columbinesand there were hand-embroidered linen napkins on each place setting. The teacups and plates were a colourful but mismatched collection of old china, no doubt sourced from antique stores all over the countryside.
It told him a lot about the owner-operator. He presumed the flame-haired beauty who had served him was Poppy Silverton. She wasn't quite what he'd been expecting. He had pictured someone older, someone a little more hard-boiled, so to speak.
Poppy Silverton looked like she'd just stepped out of the pages of a children's fairy-tale book. She had a riot of red-gold curls stuffedrather unwillingly, he suspected, given the tendrils that had escaped around her faceunder a maid's mobcap; brown eyes the colour of toffee, and a rosy mouth that looked as soft and plump as red velvet cushions. Her skin was creamy and un-lined, with just the tiniest sprinkling of freckles over the bridge of her nose that looked like a dusting of nutmeg over a baked custard. She was a mix between Cinderella and Tinkerbell.
Cutebut not his type, of course.
The swing door to the kitchen opened and out she came bearing a steaming cup of coffee. She had a smile on her face that didn't show her teeth or quite reach her eyes. 'Your coffee, sir.'
Rafe caught a faint trace of her flowery perfume as she bent down to place his coffee on the table. He couldn't quite place the fragrance lily of the valley or was it freesia? 'Thank you.'