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Fate Takes A Hand
By Betty Neels
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE village of Pont Magna, tucked into a fold of the Mendip Hills, was having its share of February weather. Sleet, icy rain, a biting wind and a sharp frost had culminated in lanes and roads like skating rinks, so that the girl making her way to the village trod with care.
She was a tall girl with a pretty face, quantities of dark hair bundled into a woolly cap, her splendid proportions hidden under an elderly tweed coat, and she was wearing stout wellies - suitable wear for the weather but hardly glamorous.
The lane curved ahead of her and she looked up sharply as a car rounded it, so that she didn't see the ridge of frozen earth underfoot, stumbled, lost her footing and sat down with undignified suddenness.
The car slowed, came to a halt and the driver got out, heaved her onto her feet without effort and remarked mildly, "You should look where you're going."
"Of course I was looking where I was going." The girl pulled her cap straight. "You had no business coming round that corner so quietly ..."
She tugged at her coat, frowning as various painful areas about her person made themselves felt.
"Can I give you a lift?"
She sensed his amusement and pointed out coldly, "You're going the opposite way," She added, "You're a stranger here?"
Although she waited he had no more to say; he only stood there looking down at her, so she said matter-of-factly, "Well, thank you for stopping. Goodbye."
When he didn't answer she looked at him and found him smiling. He was good-looking - more than that, handsome - with a splendid nose, a firm mouth and very blue eyes. She found their gaze disconcerting.
"I'm sorry if I was rude. I was taken by surprise."
"Just as I have been," he replied.
An apt remark, she reflected as she walked away from him, but somehow it sounded as though he had meant something quite different. When she reached the bend in the lane she looked back. He was still standing there, watching her.
Pont Magna wasn't a large village; it had a green, a church much too big for it, a main street wherein was the Village Stores and post office, pleasant cottages facing each other, a by-lane or two leading to other cottages and half a dozen larger houses - the vicarage, old Captain Morris's house at the far end of the street, and several comfortable dwellings belonging to retired couples. A quiet place in quiet countryside, with Wells to the south and Frome to the east and Bath to the north.
Its rural surroundings were dotted by farms and wide fields. Since the village was off a main road tourists seldom found their way there, and at this time of the year the village might just as well have been a hundred miles from anywhere. It had a cheerful life of its own; people were sociable, titbits of gossip were shared, and, since it was the only place to meet, they were shared in Mrs Pike's shop.
There were several ladies there now, standing with their baskets over their arms, listening to that lady - a stout, cheerful body with a great deal of frizzy grey hair and small, shrewd eyes.
"Took bad, sudden, like!" she exclaimed. "Well, we all knew he was going to retire, didn't we, and there'd be a new doctor? All arranged, wasn't it? I seen 'im when 'e came to look the place over. "And some too," She gave a chuckle. "There'll be a lot of lady patients for 'im, wanting to take a look. Lovely motor car too."
She beamed round her audience. "Would never 'ave seen 'im myself if I 'adn't been coming back from Wells and stopped off to get me pills at Dr Fleming's. There 'e was, a great chap. I reckon 'e'll be taking over smartish, like, now Dr Fleming's took bad and gone to 'ospital."
This interesting bit of news was mulled over while various purchases were made, but finally the last customer went, leaving Mrs Pike to stack tins of baked beans and rearrange packets of biscuits. She turned from this boring job as the door opened.
"Miss Leonora - walked, "ave you? And it's real nasty underfoot. You could 'ave phoned and Jim could 'ave fetched whatever you wanted up to the house later."
The girl pulled off her cap and allowed a tangle of curly hair to escape. "Morning, Mrs Pike. I felt like a walk even though it's beastly weather. Mother wants one or two things - an excuse to get out ..."
I'm not surprised, thought Mrs Pike; poor young lady stuck up there in that great gloomy house with her mum and dad, and that young man of hers hardly ever there. She ought to be out dancing.
She said out loud, "Let me have your list, miss, and I'll put it together. Try one of them apples while you're waiting. Let's hope this weather gives over so's we can get out and about. That Mr Beamish of yours coming for the weekend, is 'e?"
"Well, I shouldn't think so unless the roads get better," The girl twiddled the solitaire diamond on her finger and just for a moment looked unhappy. But only for a moment. "I dare say we shall have a glorious spring ..."
Mrs Pike, weighing cheese, glanced up. "Getting wed then?" she wanted to know.
Leonora smiled. Mrs Pike was the village gossip but she wasn't malicious, and although she passed on any titbits she might have gleaned she never embellished them. She was a nice old thing and Leonora had known her for almost all of her life.
"We haven't decided, Mrs Pike."
"I like a nice Easter wedding meself," said Mrs Pike.
"Married on Easter Monday, we were - lovely day it was too," She gave a chuckle. "Poor as church mice we were too. Not that that matters."
It would matter to Tony, reflected Leonora; he was something in the City, making money and intent on making still more. To Leonora, who had been brought up surrounded by valuable but shabby things in an old house rapidly falling into disrepair, and who was in the habit of counting every penny twice, this seemed both clever and rather daunting, for it seemed to take up so much of Tony's life. Even on his rare visits to her home he brought a briefcase with him and was constantly interrupted by his phone.
She had protested mildly from time to time and he had told her not to fuss, that he needed to keep in touch with the markets. "I'll be a millionaire - a multimillionare," he told her. "You should be grateful, darling - think of all the lovely clothes you'll be able to buy."
Excerpted from Fate Takes A Hand by Betty Neels Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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