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When Flora Stanza's uncle dies unexpectedly, leaving her a 51 percent share in the family antiques business, it gives her the perfect chance to leave her glamorous but less than happy London life for the quieter life of the country. Unfortunately, her cousin Charles and his fiancée Annabelle don't seem pleased to find Flora and her very pregnant cat on their doorstep.
Flora knows almost nothing about antiques, but with her London apartment rented out, her cat about to burst with kittens, and a mysterious man warning her about Annabelle, Flora has little choice but to accept her cousin's offer to stay in their abandoned holiday cottage, miles from anything remotely like what Flora considers civilization.
Soon, though, Flora is fighting off dinner invitations from the devastatingly handsome Henry and hiding her eco-friendly lodger, William. Could it be that country life isn't so dull after all?
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
|Edition description:||First Edition|
|Product dimensions:||5.63(w) x 8.84(h) x 1.37(d)|
About the Author
Katie Fforde is the London Times bestselling author of romantic novels including Restoring Grace and Paradise Fields. She lives in Gloucestershire, England.
Read an Excerpt
Bidding for Love
A yowl from the plastic box at her feet made Flora look down anxiously. Was Imelda actually having kittens, or was she still just complaining about being shut up in a pet carrier on a hot summer day?
'Not now, sweetie, please!' Flora implored through gritted teeth. 'Just hang on until I've got this meeting over. Then I'll find you a nice bed and breakfast where they like cats.'
Aware that her pleadings were really a displacement activity, Flora picked up the yowling Imelda, hooked her handbag over her shoulder, hitched her overnight bag over her arm and went up the steps. She was slightly regretting her new shoes. They were divinely pretty with a heavenly fake peony between the toes, but not worn in and therefore killingly uncomfortable. Not one to sacrifice prettiness for comfort, Flora ignored the incipient blisters and pressed the bell. Seeing her own surname on the brass plate above it gave her a strange thrill. The family firm, and she was joining it.
The door was opened by a tall woman wearing a lot of navy blue. She was a little older than Flora, and had a no-nonsense look about her which inevitably made Flora think of Girl Guides. My shoes may be not quite suitable, thought Flora, to give herself confidence, but nor is that colour in this heat. In other circumstances, Flora realised, she would yearn to do a Trinny and Susannah on her.
'Hello,' said the woman, smiling professionally, 'youmust be Flora. Do come in. We're so looking forward to meeting you. Especially Charles.'
Flora smiled too. 'I hope you won't mind, but I've got my cat with me. I can't leave her in the car in this heat. Apart from anything else, she's very pregnant.'
A little frown appeared between the woman's eyebrows as she looked down at the box. 'Oh, well, no, I'm sure it will be fine for a short time. Although I'm terribly allergic, I'm afraid.'
'Oh dear. I suppose I could leave her outside the door ...' Flora bit her lip to indicate that in fact she couldn't t leave Imelda anywhere except at her feet. 'But she might have her kittens at any moment.'
'You'd better come in,' said the woman, her professional manner beginning to fray. 'We're in here.' She opened the door of a room which was mostly filled with a table, around which were several empty chairs.
The room's sole occupant, a tall, conventionally handsome man wearing a dark suit and a very conservative tie, got up. Obviously Charles, her cousin fifteen million times removed.
Not promising. Flora depended on her charm to ease her way through life and had learnt to spot the few with whom this wouldn't work. He was a classic example, she could tell; he didn't like girls with pretty shoes, strappy dresses and amusing jewellery He liked sensible girls who wore driving shoes, or plain leather courts with medium heels. His idea of good taste was a single row of real pearls with matching earrings, and possibly a bangle on special occasions.
When the woman who had brought her in (displaying all these signs of proper dress sense) touched his arm and said, 'Darling, this is Flora,' Flora wasn't at all surprised to see the sapphire and diamond engagement ring on her left hand. They made the perfect County couple.
'Flora,' said Charles, holding out his hand. 'How niceto meet you after all these years.' He didn't sound all that pleased.
'Mm.' Flora shook the hand, smiled and nodded; she wasn't that pleased, either. She had totally reorganised her life to take a part in the family business with, she realised now, desperately inadequate research. Charles and his worthy, conventionally dressed fiancée didn't want her, wouldn't make her welcome, and her spell in the country could turn out to be horribly dull. Still, she'd made her bed, and she'd have to lie on it - at least until the sub-let on her London flat expired. 'It's very nice to meet you, too. I can't think why we haven't met before.'
'You spent quite a lot of your early life out of the country,' he said soberly, as if she might have forgotten.
'I suppose that explains it. We did miss out on quite a lot of family weddings.' She smiled. 'Though perhaps I won't miss out on the next one?'
'Oh yes, haven't you two introduced yourselves? This is Annabelle, Annabelle Stapleton. My fiancée and possible future partner in the business.' His smile, though conventional, did at least prove he brushed his teeth, which was something.
'How nice,' said Flora, wishing she'd made more enquiries about the business before telling that nice man of course he could have her flat for at least six months, she wouldn't be needing it.
'Yes,' agreed Charles. 'Now, let's sit down and discuss your part in Stanza and Stanza.'
'Would anyone like a glass of water first?' suggested Annabelle.
'Oh, yes please,' said Flora. 'And could I post a little to Imelda? In the box? I need to check on her anyway.' Flora delivered one of her most appealing smiles to her distant cousin, a last-ditch attempt to get him on her side. 'I wouldn't have brought her if there'd been any alternative, I assure you.'
'That's fine,' said Charles smoothly, almost, but not quite, concealing his impatience. Then, when the water had been dispensed and the cat seen to, he said, 'Tell me, Flora, I hope this isn't a rude question, but how much do you actually know about antiques and the auction business?'
Flora took another sip of water. 'Ah well, you pick up things like that as you go along, don't you?'
'Do you?' asked Charles, who had, she now noticed, rather strange grey-blue eyes which, beneath his sceptical eyebrows, had the look of the North Sea in winter.
'Well, yes.' Flora tried to think of a suitable phrase, to indicate she knew more than what she had gleaned from a lot of recent, frantic watching of various afternoon television programmes on the subject. 'Cheap as chips' didn't seem to apply. 'Of course,' she said airily, 'having spent so much of my youth in Europe, I'm not so up on English furniture.'
'But you must be au fait with all those glorious ceramics,' said Annabelle. 'I adore ceramics.'
Just for a moment, Flora felt unsure what ceramics were. 'Oh, you mean china and stuff? Yes, I love it too. I collect teapots, funny ones, you know?'
Charles winced visibly. 'I think we'd better get on.'
'Well, yes, we'd better,' said Flora rashly. 'But I do wonder if we will.'
'What on earth are you talking about?' said Charles. 'Now ...' He opened a file and drew out a sheaf of papers. He was not a man who would get behind with his paperwork. He had that look about him. He was a filer and a putter-into-alphabetical-order-er. It was painfully clear.
'Now,' he began, 'our mutual great-uncle left things slightly awkwardly.'
'Did he?' asked Flora. 'I thought it was all quite straightforward. You'd already inherited forty-nine per cent from your father, and I got fifty-one per cent when Uncle Clodiodied. Clear as sixteenth-century window glass, or something. Although I realise I wouldn't normally have been expected to inherit,' she added as consolation.
'Yes,' explained Charles, openly irritable now. 'But it is awkward. You own more than me. And you know nothing about the business and I've been running this auction house all my life, more or less.'
'Well, obviously I'm not going to sweep in here and make huge changes!' Flora made an extravagant gesture with her arms, observing at the same time that a good sweep, on the floor at least, would be a good idea. 'I want to learn about the business I'm going to be part of.'
Charles and Annabelle exchanged questioning glances. 'That's encouraging,' said Charles warily, 'but it still doesn't quite settle the matter. I can't have you having more shares than I have. It doesn't make sense, on any level.'
The cat yowled, possibly showing solidarity with Charles.
'Sorry, I must have a peek. In case this is it.'
'The moment when she really is going to give birth. It's her first litter, you see, and the kittens can come in about thirty minutes from when she starts. I've read all about it.'
While Flora fussed with the cat she thought about her own situation. She was obviously totally unwelcome and Charles was horrible. Which was a shame - she hardly ever disliked people. She'd probably better make an alternative plan. Staying in the depths of the country with a couple who deeply resented her presence was not going to be a lot of fun. 'If it wasn't for you, Imelda,' she breathed inaudibly, 'I'd hightail it out of town right now.'
'Tell me,' said Charles, when Flora was again upright, sitting back in her uncomfortable chair. 'What exactly do you hope to get out of your trip down here?' The grey-blueeyes were penetrating and cold - they really were just like the North Sea. Flora felt she was being interviewed for a job for which she had no qualifications - which, in a way, she was. She struggled to remind herself that, technically at least, she was more powerful than Charles.
She took a breath and didn't let herself be distracted by Imelda's yowl. 'I haven't been brought up in the business like you have, but I have known about it. I didn't expect to inherit, as I said. It was such a shock to everyone when Niccolò was killed in that car accident and even then, I never thought Uncle Clodio did you know him, by the way? He was lovely - would leave it to me.'
'No. I didn't know him.'
'It broke his heart when Nicki died, obviously.'
'It must have been terrible,' murmured Annabelle.
'But really, we my parents and I were totally surprised when we heard about how he'd left things.'
'Then I absolve you of forcing him to change his will on his death-bed,' said Charles dryly. 'But it still leaves us in a difficult position. In theory you could come in here and upset everything.'
Flora smiled. 'Yes I could, couldn't I?'
'Of course you won't,' Charles informed her firmly. 'But it would be much better if we could arrange things differently.'
'And how would you do that?' asked Flora, sensing they had the perfect plan all worked out.
'Annabelle could buy three per cent of your shares, so I would have one per cent more than you. Which, considering I am the senior partner, is only right and proper.'
'And Annabelle would have three per cent?'
'And you're going to get married, so between you, you could do what you liked?'
'Yes, but you'd still have forty-eight per cent whichwould bring you in a nice amount of money, when we make a profit.'
'Which you're not doing now?' Actually, Flora knew they weren't doing that well. She and her father had discussed it at length, but Charles was so prim and bossy that she wanted to make him say it.
'Not at the moment, no,' Charles admitted, 'but we do have plans to improve things.'
'Oh good. And now you've got me! I don't know all that much about the business, obviously, but I can learn. And two heads are better than one - or should that be three heads are better than two?' She glanced at Annabelle, who did not seem to be enjoying herself.
Charles frowned. 'Have we got you, Flora? I was under the impression' he glanced questioningly at Annabelle again - 'that you were only down here for a visit.'
'Well, yes, but I was planning to stay for quite a long time. Six months, at least. To see if I can stand - like - country life.'
'Six months!' said Annabelle. 'But where are you going to stay?'
Flora had been faintly hoping for an offer of someone's spare room, for at least a couple of days. As this was obviously not going to be forthcoming, she said, 'I thought a nice little bed and breakfast? Where they like cats?'
'Flora, before we get into the ins and outs of where you can stay, and I'm sure we can put you up for a short time'
'No, Charles!' interrupted Annabelle. 'I'm terribly allergic to cats. You must have forgotten.'
'Sorry, yes I had.' He looked pained for a moment. 'But anyway, putting all that aside for one moment, I think I should make myself perfectly clear. There's really nothing for you to do in this business. It'll be better for us - I mean Stanza and Stanza - and ultimately you, if you just sell three per cent of your shares' Imelda yowled again.'Have a short holiday if you must, and then take yourself and your cat back to London.'
'Ah - well,' began Flora, not willing to admit to being temporarily homeless.
'Your parents still own that nice little flat in Lancaster Gate?'
'And you live there?'
'When I'm in London, yes.' And I'm not in London now, you prig, and I've sub-let it for slightly more than I pay in rent to my parents so I can pay off my credit cards, she added silently, knowing not even thumbscrews would make her admit any of that to Charles.
'So you could go back?' asked Annabelle.
'I thought I was coming down here to live. For the time being, anyway. Downsizing!' she added glibly, not feeling remotely glib. 'It's terribly fashionable!'
'But if you sold me the shares, you'd have quite a lot of money. You could rent another flat, pay off your overdraft,' said Annabelle, who also had grey-blue eyes and an irritatingly patient tone of voice.
Bitch! thought Flora, she knows I'm short of money. She and Charles deserve each other. 'Well, put like that, your offer does sound quite tempting. Of course I will have to consult my father. Although I'm over twenty-one - obviously'
'Not that obviously, actually,' murmured Charles, and earned himself a flicker of a frown from Annabelle.
'I do usually discuss things like this with him. My parents aren't in the country right now, but we talk on the phone and email all the time.'
'Good,' said Charles. 'I'm sure he'd advise you to accept Annabelle's offer.'
'He might if he knew how much that was,' said Flora and smiled. 'Have you got a figure in mind?'
'Ten thousand pounds,' said Charles. 'Quite a lot morethan three per cent is worth, of course, but we want to be generous.'
'That does sound generous,' said Flora, who had no idea if it was or wasn't. 'Do you mind if I think about it?'
'How long do you need? To get in touch with your father, discuss it, etc.?' asked Charles.
'A trip to the loo would be a good start.' Flora not only needed the loo, but to rinse her wrists in cold water, to clear her head a little. It was hot and she was tired. She didn't want to find herself bullied into something against her wishes by this Country Life couple with colour-coordinated eyes.
'Of course,' said Annabelle. 'Sorry, I should have offered when you first arrived. Stupid of me.'
'No, that's fine,' Flora replied graciously.
'Follow me,' said Annabelle.
'If you could just keep an eye on the cat?' Flora smiled endearingly at Charles, knowing it would annoy him.
Flora dried her hands on the roller towel in the dingy lavatory. Horrid soap, bad light and cheap loo paper, all things she would have changed if she'd been allowed. But although she was very disappointed at the thought that all her plans for country living had been thwarted, ten thousand pounds would sort out her remaining credit-card bills, put a deposit down, and pay quite a few weeks' rent on a new flat. Or she could pay off the tenant in her parents' flat.
She should have felt excited about these new options, but somehow, as she emerged from the converted corridor that was now the Ladies, she felt flat and deflated. Her skills might not have been directly relevant to an auction house, but she did have them.
An elderly man in a brown warehouse coat stopped her before she'd turned into the main passage. 'Excuse me, are you Miss Stanza?'
'Yes.' He was silver-haired and well spoken and yet the shirt and tie, visible beneath the long coat, looked rather worn.
'I'm Geoffrey Whiteread. I knew your great-uncle, years ago. I'm the head porter.'
Flora struggled for a moment. 'The man who holds things up at the sales?'
The man smiled. 'Well, yes, but there is a bit more to it than that.' He looked about him, strangely furtive. 'Things are a bit difficult. I wanted to speak to you.'
Never one to refuse to share a trouble, Flora smiled, even if it did all seem a bit Gothic. 'Speak away.' The man looked kindly and a little troubled.
Just then they heard the office door open and both jumped. The Gothicness was obviously getting to them.
'This will improve the air circulation, at least,' they heard Charles say.
The old man frowned. 'We obviously can't talk here,' he whispered. 'But perhaps we could arrange to meet later? It's very important you don't let that Annabelle woman get her hands on this business.'
'Why not?' Flora whispered back.
He made a gesture to indicate he couldn't go into it just then. 'Because she's a ...' He paused, clearly on the verge of saying something very rude about Annabelle and then changed his mind. 'We can't talk here,' he repeated.
With the door open, Imelda's next protest was clearly audible. 'I'd better go back,' Flora nodded. 'Isn't there anything you can tell me now?'
The man shook his head. 'Not now. Just don't let her take control of the business. She's a holy terror.'
Scared lest her words be heard, Flora nodded again and set off slowly towards the door. She had obviously strayed into some sort of mystery novel, and she, Flora, would have to rescue this poor old man from the exploitative fiancée.
'She's a complete airhead,' she heard the exploitative fiancée say. 'But I expect she'll take the money. A fashion victim like her will jump at it.'
Fashion victim? Flora exchanged outraged glances with Geoffrey, who was listening with equal horror. She liked clothes, but fashion victim? Huh!
A chuckle, presumably from Charles, greeted this. 'Yes, she's obviously a natural blonde.'
Flora narrowed her eyes. 'Not as natural as all that,' she mouthed to Geoffrey.
'I never dreamt she'd want to stay,' said Annabelle.
Flora was confused. She knew she'd sent an email stating firmly she was going to take some time to learn what was what. She thought she'd been perfectly clear about it.
'I must say I would have thought even someone like her would have mentioned it. It's rude, not to mention inconvenient.'
'Actually' - it was Annabelle speaking - 'I think she may have said something about it in an email. I just assumed she'd take one look and run back to London.'
There was a small silence while Flora held her breath, terrified in case she made a noise and they discovered she was eavesdropping. 'Oh.' This was Charles. 'We'll just have to hope you're right.'
'No need to go on about it, Charles,' said his fiancée.
Even Flora, who wasn't exactly warming to Charles, thought this was a little unfair. He'd only said 'oh'.
'We'll have to try and convince her that staying is a bad idea and hope she takes the hint,' he said.
And before Annabelle could say anything more about her, Flora pulled back her shoulders and marched back into the room. Up until the 'natural blonde' comment she'd been in two minds, but that did it. No way was she going to let herself be chased back to London with a cheque for ten thousand pounds! Even without that sweetold man's Ancient Mariner-type mutterings, she was going to give this a go.
'Well,' she said, having made sure both Charles and Annabelle were looking at her. 'I've had a little think, and at the moment, I don't feel I want to take up your generous offer, Annabelle.'
'What? Why not?' said Charles, indignant and surprised.
'Because I really want to find out about my family business, to work here, to learn about furniture and things.' She was aware that the 'and things' rather detracted from her grand statement, but she hadn't had long to prepare and hoped they wouldn't notice.
'My dear Flora,' said Charles, unwittingly using a phrase calculated to turn his cousin into a bra-burning shrew, 'you know nothing about the business. You have absolutely nothing to offer us. There's no room for you. There would be nothing for you to do.'
'Is that so?' Flora replied tartly. 'Then why are you advertising for a "general assistant" in the local paper?'
'When did you see the local paper?' demanded Charles, as if her buying it had been somehow illegal.
'Before I arrived. I was looking for bed and breakfast accommodation.' She was actually looking for somewhere she might rent, for when the kittens were born.
'The local paper is not the best place to look for that,' said Annabelle. 'And I'm afraid there's absolutely none available at the moment.'
'What do you mean? There must be. This is a very pretty little town. Someone must do bed and breakfast.'
'Lots of people do,' said Charles. 'But there's the music festival on at the moment. The town is seething with violinists.'
'Oh. I wonder what the collective noun for those is,' said Flora. A sound emerged from Imelda's box. 'Perhaps that about covers it.'
A tiny crinkle at the corner of his eyes told Flora that Charles found this quite funny but was not going to allow himself to laugh. Well, at least he had a sense of humour, even if he didn't ever use it.
'I had thought of renting, eventually.' In spite of her brave resolutions she was aware that her voice betrayed her misgivings.
Charles sighed impatiently, as if dealing with a toddler he wanted to smack but had to placate. 'We seem to have got off on the wrong foot somehow. We're not trying to stop you being part of the business, it just never occurred to us you'd want to.'
This was sufficiently annoying to give Flora another shot of courage. 'No?' Her brown eyes were limpid with disbelief as they met his cold, blue ones. 'But I sent an email. I thought I was quite clear about my intentions. Or didn't you get it?'
Annabelle cleared her throat. 'It, er, it only half downloaded, so we didn't, quite. But I'm sure you can understand that Charles doesn't want you coming in here and messing about with things you don't understand,' she went on more briskly. 'Of course you will want to talk things over with your father, but I'm sure he'll advise you to be sensible and accept my offer.'
'Possibly,' said Flora. 'But I should point out that although he does advise me, I am old enough to make my own decisions.' Aware she was in a position of power, Flora's tones became low and gentle. Let them rant and rave if they felt like it.
'It will take a couple of days to get the legal stuff sorted,' said Charles. 'Perhaps if you had a few days' holiday down here, you might realise that a small market town really isn't the place for a metropolitan girl like you.'
'But where's she going to stay?' demanded Annabelle. 'I can't have her - she's got a cat!'
'And because I've got a cat, who might have kittens atany minute, I can't just go back to London. I might cause an accident. Imagine the News! "Ambulance called to help deliver kittens after pile-up on the M4. The RSPCA investigate."'
'Let's not get too worked up about this,' said Charles, not finding Flora's melodrama remotely amusing.
'No, let's not,' agreed Flora, disappointed that he couldn't crack a smile, even to be polite.
'Flora can stay in the holiday cottage,' he went on.
'Don't be ridiculous!' Annabelle dismissed this immediately. 'It's not fit for habitation. Otherwise we would have let it.'
'It's perfectly fit for habitation,' Charles contradicted. 'It's just not quite up to the standard required by the agency.'
'It's in the middle of nowhere!' protested Annabelle.
Charles didn't see this as a problem, in fact it was probably an advantage. 'Flora has a car.'
'Yes, I have.' Flora smiled, not wanting this lovers' tiff to continue in her presence. 'The holiday cottage sounds wonderful.'
'Honestly, you won't want to stay there,' said Annabelle. 'It's right out in the country, near some woods. You'll be terrified of the owls.'
'I don't want you ringing Charles at all hours of the night because you're frightened of the dark,' Annabelle explained.
'Of course not,' agreed Flora pleasantly. 'Just as well I'm not frightened of it. And owls don't bother me, either.'
'Sorry!' said Annabelle. 'It's just that most people from London seem quite incapable of coping with country sounds: mating foxes, owls, cat fights, stuff like that.'
'When you've heard lions roar and elephants trumpet and there's only a thin bit of canvas between you and them, you don't worry about anything that can't eat you,'said Flora, believing this statement to be true, even if she had no experience of anything like that herself.
'Oh. Right,' said Annabelle, wrong-footed. 'I suppose not.'
'Does the holiday cottage have sheets? Saucepans, a corkscrew?' Flora enquired tentatively, not wanting to cause more annoyance than necessary.
'I'll pop home and fetch some things. I've got plenty of bed linen,' said Annabelle. She unhitched a serviceable leather bag from a chair and extracted a large bunch of keys. 'All right if I take the Landy, sweetie?'
'Of course,' said Sweetie.
When she was alone with her cousin, Flora said, 'I think I should warn you, I do want to work here. I'll apply for the job as a general assistant, if you want.'
'I really don't think you'd like it.'
'You can't possibly know me well enough to say what I'd like and what I wouldn't! We've only just met.'
'I know but ...'
'Did you used to go out with someone called Justin Mateland?'
Flora became wary. 'Yes. Do you know him?'
'We were at school together.'
'Yes.' Charles's hard blue eyes drilled into Flora long enough to inform her that he considered she had behaved very badly to Justin. He didn't say it out loud, so Flora could defend herself, he just let her know that that was his opinion of the matter.
'Now we've discussed our mutual acquaintance perhaps we could go back to the matter in hand?' she said sharply.
'The job? I was about to apply for it. If you could just give me a form I could fill it in.'
Charles sighed deeply. 'Oh, it's all right, you don't have to do that.'
'But if you've got other candidates to see ...'
'No. There are no other candidates. We've been advertising for the post for weeks, and no one remotely suitable has applied.'
'Why not?' This was a bit worrying. Had Charles got a reputation locally for being mean-minded with no sense of humour and a horrible employer? It seemed perfectly possible.
'Because no one with anything about them wants to work here.'
'But why not?' She wasn't expecting him necessarily to admit to the reason, but she might get some clue.
'The wages, dear cousin, are crap.'
Flora bit her lip. Not good news, but not as bad as it could have been. 'I see.'
When he was quite sure that Flora was sufficiently subdued by the prospect of working for practically nothing, in a firm who didn't want her, while living in a remote cottage in the woods, Charles said, 'I must ring the solicitor. Will you be all right here for a few moments? There are a few magazines ...'
'I'll be fine. You go and do your thing.' She smiled again, from habit, but he didn't notice.
BIDDING FOR LOVE. Copyright © 2005 by Katie Fforde. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This book was ok. (SPOILER ALERT) I did find it INCREDIBLY disturbing that two COUSINS ended up together. EWWW! They even had the same last name, and maybe that's OK in England but not so much here. It was a bit dull and eventually got better, but there are still many other chic lits I like better.
I didn't really like the ending. The character seemed to change personalities.
very good book, but somewhat predictable. The English humor is quite apparent and cute. Easy read that goes by quickly, so hold on tight.