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With a convulsive shiver Lily Frome wriggled her skinny frame deeper into the swamping fabric of her old dufflecoat. Saturday morning the High Street of the tiny market town was usually thronged with shoppers, but today the bitter late March wind and icy flurries of rain had kept all but the most hardy at home.
Even those who had gritted their teeth and popped to the shops for essentials scurried past her, heads downbent, studiously ignoring the bright yellow collecting tin adorned with the 'Life Begins' smiley face logo. Usually as generous as they could afford to be, because the small local charity was well known and approved of, today the good citizens of Market Hallow obviously weren't turned on by the idea of stopping for a chat or fumbling in purses for the odd twenty pence pieceat least not in this inclement weather.
Ramming her woolly hat lower on her head, her generous mouth downturned, Lily was about to give up and head home to the cottage she shared with Great-Aunt Edith and report failure when the sight of a tall man emerging from the narrow doorway that led up a flight of twisty stairs to the local solicitor's office above the chemist's. He was about to head in the opposite direction, turning up the collar of his expensive-looking dark grey overcoat as he began to stride away.
She'd never seen him before, and Lily knew pretty much everyone in the area, but he looked well heeled at least from what she could see of his impressive back view he did. Her wide, optimistic smile forming naturally, she sprinted after him, ready to spell out the charity's aims and efforts, and neatly inserted herself in front of him, avoiding an undignified head-on collision bythe skin of her teeth, waving the collecting tin and leaving the explanations until she'd got her breath back.
But, staring up at six feet plus of devastating masculine beauty, she felt that by some freak of nature her lungs and breath would for evermore be strangers. He was the most fantastically handsome man she had ever seen or was ever likely to. Slightly wind-rumpled and rain-spangled dark-as-midnight hair above a pair of penetrating golden eyes had what she could only describe as a totally mesmeric effect.
It was so strange to find herself completely tongue-tied. It had never happened before. Great-Aunt Edith always said she would be able to talk her way out of a prison cell, should she ever be so unfortunate as to find herself locked up in one.
Her smile wobbled and faded. Transfixed, she could only stare, her water-clear grey eyes sliding to his wide, sensual mouth as he spoke. His voice was very slightly accented, making her skin prickle and shivers take up what felt like permanent residence in her spine.
'You appear to be young and relatively fit,'he opined flatly. 'I suggest you try working for a living.'
Sidestepping her after that quelling put-down, his hands in the pockets of his overcoat, he walked away. Behind her, Lily heard someone say, 'I heard that! Want me to go and give him a slapping?'
'Meg!' The spell broken, her wits returning, Lily swung round to face her old schoolfriend. At almost six foottowering a good ten inches above Lily's slight frameMeg was a big girl in all directions. No one messed with herespecially when she was wearing an expression that promised retribution!
Her cheeks dimpling, Lily giggled. 'Forget it. He obviously thought I was a beggar.'A rueful glance at her worn old dufflecoat, shabby cord trousers and unlovely trainers confirmed that totally understandable conjecture. 'All I lack is a cardboard box and a dog on a piece of string!'
'All you lack,' Meg asserted witheringly, 'is some sense! Twenty-three years old, bright as a button, and still working for next to nothing!'
For nothing, these days, Lily silently corrected her friend's assessment of her financial situation. 'It's worth it,' she stated without hesitation. She might not have the most glamorous or financially rewarding job in the world, but it made up for that in spades in the satisfaction stakes.
'Oh, yeah?'Unconvinced, Meg took her arm in a grip only an all-in wrestler could hope to escape from. 'Come on. Coffee. My treat.'
Five minutes later Lily had put the bad-tempered stranger and the weird effect he'd had on her out of her mind. She soaked in the welcome warmth of Ye Olde Copper Kettle at one of its tiny tables, cluttered with doilies, a menu penned in glorious copperplate, and a vase of unconvincing artificial tulips. She placed the collecting tin with its smiley face on the edge of the table and removed her sodden woolly hat, revealing flattened, dead straight caramel-coloured hair. Her triangular face lit up as the stout elderly waitress advanced with a burdened tray, and she sprang to her feet to help unload cups, sugar bowl, coffee pot and cream jug, asking, 'How's your grandson?'
'On the mend, thanks. Out of hospital. His dad said that if he so much as looks at another motorbike he'll skin him alive!'
'Teach him to treat country lanes like a racetrack,' Meg put in dourly, earning a sniff from the waitress, who otherwise ignored her, smiling at Lily, nudging the collecting tin a fraction away from the edge of the table.
'Not good collecting weather! This place has been like a morgue all morning. But I'll be at your jumble sale next week if I can get time off.'
Lily's piquant face fell as she watched the older woman depart. The twice-yearly jumble sale, held to raise funds for Life Begins, looked like being a washout. She voiced her concern to Meg. 'This is a small town, and there's only so often you can recycle unwanted clothes, books and knick-knacks. So far donations have been poormostly stuff that everyone's seen and left behind before.'
'I might be able to help you there.'Meg poured coffee into the dainty china cups. 'You know Felton Hall's just been sold?'
'So?'Lily took a sip of the excellent coffee. The Hall, situated a couple of miles further on from her great-aunt's cottage, had been on the market since old Colonel Masters had died, six months earlier. It was the first she'd heard of the sale, but Meg ought to know, working as she did for a branch of a nationwide estate agents based in the nearest large town. 'How does that help me?'
'Depends if you've got the bottle to get up there before the house clearance people get their feet over the threshold.' Meg grinned, vigorously stirring four spoonsful of sugar into her cup. 'The contents were sold along with the property. The Colonel's only son works in the Cityprobably owns a penthouse apartment, all functional minimalism, as befits a high-flying bachelorso he had no interest in his dad's heavy old-fashioned stuff. And the new owner will want rid of it. So if you smile sweetly you might get your hands on some half-decent bits and bobs for that jumble sale. Worst-case scenario is they shut the door in your face!'
* * *
Paolo Venini parked the Lexus in front of the latest addition to his personal property portfolio and eyed the Georgian façade of Felton Hall with satisfaction. Situated on ten acres of scenic, nicely wooded countryside, it was ideal for the ultra-exclusive country house hotel he had in mind.
All he had to do to start the ball rolling was get the county preservation people on side. The initial meeting was scheduled for tomorrow afternoon. It should go his way. He had minutely detailed plans for the interior conversion to hand, drawn up by the best listed building architect in the country. Only he wouldn't be around to head the meeting himself.
His sensual mouth compressed he let himself in through the imposing main door. He was edgy. Not a state of mind he allowed, as a rule. His adored mother was the only living soul who could breach his iron control, and late last night her doctor had phoned to tell him that she had collapsed. Hospitalised, she was undergoing tests, and he would be kept closely informed. The moment his PA from his central London office arrived he'd head back to Florence to be with his frail parent.
Never lacking for life's luxuries, nevertheless she'd had a rough ride. Losing her husband, father of her two sons, ten years ago had left her bereft. Losing her eldest son and her daughter-in-law Rosa in a tragic road accident a year ago had almost finished her. Antonio had been thirty-six, two years Paolo's senior. Eschewing the family merchant bank, he'd been a brilliant lawyer with a glittering career in front of himand what had made it even worse was the fact that Rosa had been eight weeks pregnant with the grandchild his mother had longed for.
Madre's talkonce she'd got over the initial shock of the tragedywas now centred around Paolo's need to marry and provide an heir. Her desire to see him married. His duty to provide her with grandchildren to carry on the name and inherit the vast family estates.
Much as he aimed to please her, giving her his attention, his care, his filial love, it was a duty he had no wish to fulfil. Been there, done that. One embarrass-ingly disastrous engagement, from which he'd emerged with egg on his face, and one marriage that had lasted a mere ten months. One month of blinkered honeymoon bliss followed by nine of increasingly bitter disillusionment.
He would like to give his parent what she wanted, see her sad eyes light with happiness, watch the smile he knew the news of his imminent marriage would bring, but everything in him rebelled against going down that road again.
Unconsciously his frown deepened, lines slashing between the golden glitter of his eyes as he entered the vast kitchen regions, searching for the makings of a scratch lunch. Penny Fleming should have been here by now. He'd phoned his London PA first thing, instructing her to set out for Felton Hall immediately, having packed enough for a few days. He couldn't leave until he knew she was here and fully briefed about tomorrow's meeting.
Aware that an ear-blistering tirade was building on the tip of his tongue, ready to be launched at Miss Fleming's head the moment she crossed the threshold, he scotched the idea of lunch and took a carton of orange juice from the haphazardly stocked fridge. After he'd left the solicitor's this morning he should have hit the shops for something more appealing than the pack of dodgy-looking tomatoes and a lump of pale, plastic-wrapped cheese that looked as unappetising as it undoubtedly was, which he'd misguidedly purchased from a service station on the drive up here yesterday evening.
Well, Penny Fleming would just have to shop for her own needsif she ever got her butt up here! He slammed the fridge door closed with a force which would have sent the thing through the wall in a house less solidly built, then expelled a long breath.
Edginess brought about by his frail parent's collapse, his need to be with her, his frustration at having to hang around, had already made him even more cutting then was usual when that beggar had jumped in front of him. He'd have to make an effort not to read the full riot act to his PA when she finally turned up.
Trouble was, his temper was never sweetened by delay, by less than immediate and superhuman effort in those he employed, or by fools and layabouts!
* * *
It was worth a try. As Meg had said, the new owner could only shut the door in her face!
Easing the ancient Mini out onto the lane, Lily waved to her Great-Aunt Edith, who was watching from the window, and set off down the tangle of narrow country lanes for Felton Hall.
Concern for her elderly relative wiped the cheery smile from her face as she steered into the first bend. Many years ago Edith had started the charityjust a small local concernorganising bring and buys, jumble sales, writing begging letters to local bigwigs, setting out her aims. She had relied on volunteersespecially Alice Dunstan, who had meticulously kept their accounts. Now Alice had left the area, which meant the accounts were in a mess and funds were dismally low. The people carrierbought second hand, courtesy of a legacy from a well-wisherwas due for a major service and MOT, and the Mini was clapped out. The insurance bill was duethey couldn't operate without thatand she simply didn't know where the money was coming from.
And, worse than that, for the first time in her eighty years Edith had admitted she was feeling her age. The indefatigable spirit was fading. She was even talking of being forced into closing the operation down.
Lily set her jaw. Not if she could help it! She owed her great-aunt everything. It was she who had taken her in after her mother had died when her father, claiming that he couldn't cope with a fractious eighteen-month-old, had handed her over to his departed wife's only living relative and done a bunk, never to be heard of again. The old lady who had legally adopted her, given her love and a happy, secure, if rather old-fashioned childhood was owed her very best efforts.
If the Hall offered rich pickings next Saturday's event would be a success, and the hurdle of the insurance bill could be jumped. Lily's natural optimism took over, and she put her foot down, but had to stamp on the brakes as she rounded the bend, sliding in the mud to avoid running into the back of a shiny new Ford that was all but blocking the narrow lane.
Clutching the wheel with white-knuckled hands, Lily watched the driver's door open. A smartly suited thirty-something woman emerged and hurried towards her, her beautifully made-up face a mixture of hope and anxiety.
Anxiety won as Lily wound down her window. 'Oh I hopedI've been here for ages. My boss will be waiting and he doesn't do waiting! Roadworks on the motorway, then I got losttook the wrong turn out of Market Hallowand then I got this wretched puncture! And, to cap it all, I left in such a hurry I forgot my mobile, so I can't let him know what's happening. He'll kill me!'
The poor woman looked on the verge of hysterics, and her bosswhoever he wassounded foul! Hiding a grin, Lily scrambled out of her old car. This elegantly clad secretary-type had obviously hoped for a burly man to happen along. Her hopes must have taken a nosedive when she was confronted by a short skinny female!