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I was having a good day until George Challoner turned up.
It had rained almost every day since I had arrived in Yorkshire, but that morning I woke to a bright, breezy day. By some miracle Audrey had started first time, and I hummed as I drove along the country lanes lined with jaunty daffodils to Whellerby Hall.
When I arrived at the site, Frank, the lugubrious foreman, had even smileda first. Well, his face relaxed slightly in response to my cheery greeting, but in my current mood I was prepared to count it a smile. Progress, anyway.
The ready-mixed concrete arrived bang on time. I stood and watched carefully as the men started pouring it into the reinforced steel raft for the foundations. They clearly knew what they were doing, and I had already checked the quality of the concrete. After a frenzied couple of weeks, I could tell Hugh that the project was back on schedule.
Everything was going to plan. I had it all worked out.
1. Get site experience.
2. Get job overseas on major construction project.
3. Get promoted to senior engineer.
And because I was an expert planner, I had made sure all my goals were Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time-bound. I was aiming for promotion by the time I was thirty, an overseas job by the end of the year, and I was already getting site experience with the new conference and visitor centre on the Whellerby Hall estate.
True, things had got off to a shaky start. Endless rain, unreliable suppliers and a construction team made up of dour Yorkshiremen who had apparently missed out on a century of women's liberation and made no secret of their reluctance to take orders from a female. My attempts to involve them in team-building exercises had not gone down well.
For a while, I admit, I had wondered if I had made a terrible mistake leaving the massive firm in London, but my plan was clear. I badly needed some site experience, and the Whellerby project was too good an opportunity to miss.
And now it might all just be coming together, I congratulated myself, checking another grid off on my clipboard. I'd won a knock-down-drag-out fight with the concrete supplier, which might account for Frank'ssort ofsmile and now we could start building.
Perhaps I could let myself relax, just a little.
That was when George arrived.
He drove the battered Land Rover as if it were a Lamborghini, swinging into the site and parkingdeliberately squint, I was sure!next to Audrey in a flurry of mud and gravel.
I pressed my lips together in disapproval. George Challoner was allegedly the estate manager, although as far as I could see this involved little more than turning up at inconvenient moments and distracting everyone else who was actually trying to do some work.
He was also my neighbour. I'd been delighted at first to be given my own cottage on the estate. I was only working on the project until Hugh Morrison, my old mentor, had recovered from his heart attack, and I didn't want to get involved with expensive long-term lets so a tied cottage for no rent made perfect sense.
I was less delighted to discover that George Challoner lived on the other side of the wall, his cottage a mirror image of mine under a single slate roof. It wasn't that he was a noisy neighbour, but I was always so aware of him, and it wasn't because he was attractive, if that's what you're thinking.
I was prepared to admit that he was extremely easy on the eye. My own preference was for dark-haired men, while George was lean and rangy with hair the colour of old gold and ridiculously blue eyes, but, still, I could see that he was good-looking.
OK, he was very good-looking. Too good-looking.
I didn't trust good-looking men. I'd fallen for a dazzling veneer once before, and it wasn't a mistake I intended to make again.
I watched balefully as George waved and strode across to join me at the foundations. The men had all brightened at his approach and were shouting boisterous abuse at him. Even Frank grinned, the traitor.
I sighed. What was it with men? The ruder they were, the more they seemed to like each other.
'Hey, Frank, don't look now but your foundations are full of holes,' said George, peering down at the steel cages.
'They're supposed to be that way,' I said, even though I knew he was joking. I hated the way George always made me feel buttoned-up. 'The steel takes the tensile stress.'
'I wish I had something to take my stress,' said George. He had an irritating ability to give the impression that he was laughing while keeping a perfectly straight face. Something to do with the glinting blue eyes, I thought, or perhaps the almost imperceptible deepening of the creases around his eyes. Or the smile that seemed to be permanently tugging at the corner of his mouth.
Whatever it was, I wished he wouldn't do it. It made me feel
Besides, I had never met anybody less stressed. George Challoner was one of those charmed individuals for whom life was a breezy business. He never seemed to take anything seriously. God only knew why Lord Whellerby had made him estate manager. I was sure George was just playing at it, amusing himself between sunning himself on the deck of a yacht or playing roulette in some swish casino. I knew his type.
'What can we do for you, George?' I said briskly. 'As you can see, we're rather busy here today.'
'The guys are busy,' said George, nodding at the foundations where the men had gone back to pouring the concrete. 'You're just watching.'
'I'm supervising,' I said with emphasis. 'That's my job.'
'Good job, just watching everyone else do the work.'
I knew quite well that he was just trying to wind me up, but I ground my teeth anyway. 'I'm the site engineer,' I said. 'That means I have to make sure everything is done properly.'
'A bit like being an estate manager, you mean?' said George. 'Except you get to wear a hard hat.'
'I don't see that my job has anything in common with yours,' I said coldly. 'And talking of hard hats, if you must come onto the site, you should be wearing one. I've reminded you about that before.'
George cast a look around the site. Beyond the foundations where the concrete mixer churned, it was a sea of mud. It had been cleared the previous autumn and was now littered with machinery and piles of reinforcing wires. 'I'm taller than everything here,' he objected. 'I can't see a single thing that could fall on my head.'
'You could trip over and knock your head on a rock,' I said, adding under my breath, 'with any luck.'
'I heard that!' George grinned, and I clutched my clipboard tighter to my chest and put up my chin. 'I never had to wear a hard hat when Hugh Morrison was overseeing,' he said provocatively.
'That was before we'd started construction, and, in any case, that was up to Hugh. This is my site now, and I like to follow correct procedures.'
I promise you, I wasn't always unbearably pompous, but there was just something about George that rubbed me up the wrong way.
'Now, that's a useful thing to know,' he exclaimed. 'Maybe that's where I've been going wrong!'
His gaze rested on my face. Nobody had the right to have eyes that blue, I thought crossly as I fought the colour that was stealing along my cheekbones. My fine, fair skin was the bane of my life. The slightest thing and I'd end up blushing like a schoolgirl.
'So what's the correct procedure for asking you out?' he asked, leaning forward confidentially as if he really expected me to tell him.
I kept my composure. Making a big play of looking over at the foundations and then checking something off my list, I said coolly: 'You ask me out, and I say no.'
'I've tried that,' he objected.
He had. The first night I arrived, he had popped round to suggest a drink at the pub in the village. He asked me every time he saw me. I was sure it was just to annoy me now. Any normal man would have got the point by then.
'Then I'm not sure what I can suggest.'
'Come on, we're neighbours,' said George. 'We should be friendly.'
'It's precisely because we're neighbours that I don't think it's a good idea,' I said, making another mark on my clipboard. George wasn't to know it was meaningless. 'You live right next door to me. If we went for a drink and you turned out to be some kind of weirdo, I'd never be able to get away from you.' 'Weirdo?'
He was doing his best to sound outraged, but he didn't fool me. I could tell he was trying not to laugh.
Pushing my hair behind my ears, I glared at him.
'Maybe weirdo isn't quite the right word,' I allowed, 'but you know what I mean.'
'I see.' George pretended to ponder. 'So you think that after one date, I might never leave you alone? I might pester you to go out again or fall madly in love with you?'
My beastly cheeks were turning pink again, I could feel it. 'I don't think that's very likely.' 'Why not?'
I looked down at my clipboard, wishing that he would stop asking awkward questions and just go away.
'I'm not the kind of girl men fall madly in love with,' I said evenly after a moment.
Sadly, all too true.
George pursed his lips and his eyes danced. 'OK, so if you're not worried about me falling for you, maybe you're worried you'll fall madly in love with me.'
'I can assure you that's not going to happen!' I snapped.
'That sounds like a challenge to me.'
'It certainly isn't,' I said. 'I'm just saying that you're not my type.'
Of course, he couldn't leave it there, could he? 'What is your type, then?'
'Not you, anyway,' I told him firmly, and he put on an injured look. Like I say, he didn't take anything seriously.
'I don't trust handsome men,' I said. 'You're too good-looking for me.'
'Hey, isn't that lookist or something?' he protested. 'You wouldn't hold my looks against me if I was ugly, would you? Or at least you wouldn't admit it.'
I sighed. 'I don't know why you're so keen to ask me out anyway,' I said. 'You must be desperate for a date.'
'I'm just trying to be friendly.'
'Well, I appreciate it,' I said crisply, 'but I'm only here for a couple of months and I'd rather keep our relationship professional if that's all right with you.'
'I like the idea of us having a relationship,' said George, 'but I'm not so sure about the professional bit. Is everything professional with you, Frith?'
'It is while I'm here. This job is important to me,' I told him. 'I really needed some site experience and this is my first time in charge. It's a great chance for me. Plus, this contract is really important to Hugh. He's been so good to me, I don't want to let him down.'
I looked around the site, narrowing my eyes as I envisaged what the centre would look like when it was finished. The specifications were for the use of sustainable materials wherever possible, and the wood and glass finish was designed to blend into the backdrop of the trees edging the site.
'It's going to look good,' I told George. 'It's expensive, but I gather Lord Whellerby's plan is to make Whellerby Hall the top conference venue in the north, and the centre will be a step towards that. It's a good idea,' I added. I rather liked the sound of Lord Whellerby. I hadn't met him yet, but I got the impression that he was astute and sensibleunlike his estate manager!
George had been following my gaze, rocking back on his heels as he studied the site thoughtfully. The breeze ruffled his hair and set it glinting where it caught the sunlight. In spite of the muddy boots and worn Guernsey, he looked as if he were modelling for a country sports catalogue.
'He had to do something,' he said frankly. 'These stately homes are expensive to keep up. Roly nearly passed out when he saw the first heating bill!'
'Does Lord Whellerby know you call him Roly?' I asked disapprovingly. In spite of his regular requests for progress reports, he had never visited the site, apparently happy to appoint the laid-back George as his go-between.
'We were at school together,' George said. 'He's lucky if Roly is all I call him!'
'Oh.' I was disconcerted. 'I'd imagined an older man.'
'No, he's thirty-two. He never expected to inherit Whellerby. The last Lord Whellerby was his great-uncle, and he had a son and a grandson who were groomed to take over the estate in due course. But they had a whole string of family tragedies and Roly was pitched into the middle of things.'
'It must have been difficult for him,' I said, still trying to picture Lord Whellerby as a young man instead of the experienced landowner I'd imagined.
'It was. This is a big estate. It was a lot to take on, and Roly had never even lived in the country before. He had no experience and he was frankly terrified. I don't blame him,' said George.
'Oh.' The breeze was pushing in some clouds, I noticed worriedly. It kept blowing my hair around my face and I wished I'd taken the time to plait it. My hair, by the way, is another bane of my life. It is fine and straight and brown and I can't do anything with it other than let it hang there.
I pulled away a strand that had plastered itself against my lips, still trying to reconfigure this new information about Lord Whellerby, who was, after all, the client.
'Did you come here at the same time?' I asked George.
'Not immediately. Roly inherited an estate manager from his great-uncle and the guy was running rings round him. I was
at a loose end, shall we say? Roly invited me up to keep him company for a while, and when the estate manager left he asked if I wanted the job.' George grinned and spread his hands. 'I had nothing better to do, so here I am.'
That rang true. George was exactly the kind of person who would get a job because of who he knew rather than what he knew, I thought darkly.
'Jobs for the boys, in fact?'
George's smile was easy. 'No one else would employ me,' he said, clearly unfazed by my disapproval.
I sniffed. 'I still think you should show your employer some respect and refer to him as Lord Whellerby,' I said primly.
'Do you call Hugh Mr Morrison?'
'He's not a lord, for a start.'
George made a big deal of shaking his head and then smacking his ear as if to clear it. 'Sorry, that was really weird,' he told her. 'For a minute there I thought we were in the twenty-first century, but, thank God, we're back in the nineteenth where we all know our place!'
'Maybe it is old-fashioned of me,' I conceded, 'but I happen to think there's nothing wrong with using a title to show a bit of respect.'
'You call me George.'
'And your point is
He raised his hands in surrender and smiled. 'I'd hate to be called Mr Challoner, anyway,' he said. 'I'd constantly be looking over my shoulder for my father.' For a second, his mouth was set and a grimness touched his eyes, but so fleetingly that afterwards I decided that I must have imagined it.