Authors: Charlotte Lamb
1722—FOLLOW A STRANGER
1803—A FAMILY AFFAIR
Original hard cover edition published in 1975
by Mills & Boon Limited
Harlequin edition published January 1976
1975 Charlotte Lamb.
The spring sunshine was deceptive. That mild blue sky, the dancing dazzle of light on the station window, the golden sheen of daffodils on the grass bank—they all disguised the bitter wind which nipped at feet and hands with the aggression of December rather than April.
Kate Fox shivered in her shabby camelhair coat, drawing the collar closer to her face, flushing as her glance collided with that of the only other passenger waiting on the platform.
They had already studied each other with the casual interest boredom breeds on such occasions.
He was the executive type, she had decided with a faint flicker of hostility. He was tall, well-groomed, with smooth dark hair and eyes the colour of the wintry grey sea she had last seen yesterday when she was driving away from her home. His expression was an irritating mixture of the sardonic and the curious. His rather attractive mouth had twitched at her scornful scrutiny, and he had openly returned her interest, his brows lifting so slightly that it just might have been accidental, yet somehow leaving her in no doubt that he intended the silent comment. Kate had lifted her chin in defiance and turned her attention elsewhere.
Now, conscious of his opinion of her clothes, she gave him a cold stare. Her old coat was past praying for and should have been discarded ages ago, but all her spare money had been needed for Aunt Agnes. For the last two years of her life the poor darling had been unable to digest anything but the lightest food; gently steamed fish, chicken and eggs, with plenty of fruit and fresh salads. Working part-time, so as to be with her as much as possible, Kate had only just earned enough for their food. Luckily, the house belonged to Aunt Agnes, and their rates were not too high. Kate had not been aware of the slow deterioration in her clothes until after Aunt Anges's death. When she had sold the house, the solicitor had said, she would have sufficient funds to buy herself whatever she needed. It was then that, reading his half-pitying, half-shocked glance, Kate had realised how shabby she had become. She had flushed and changed the subject.
He had touched, too, on the subject of a future career. Apart from working part-time in a pet shop Kate had not been trained for anything other than nursing an invalid. She had gently rejected the solicitor's well-meant suggestions.
"I've already applied for a job," she had told him.
He had looked surprised. "Oh?"
"I answered an advertisement in
. It's ideal for me. I think—a post as companion to a widow in rural Essex. A love of animals essential, but no housework or cooking needed."
His smooth, well-trained face cracked slightly into a frown. "It sounds too much like your previous life. You're too young to bury yourself with another old lady in the depths of the country. Why not go up to London, train as a nurse or a secretary, and enjoy your youth?" He had sighed. "It doesn't last for ever, you know."
She had smiled at him. "I like the country. London terrifies me."
"Well, I hope you will reconsider your decision," he had told her.
She had listened to his arguments politely, but had not changed her mind, and was on her way now to her new home. She had thought of it as home ever since her first meeting with her new employer, who had come up to London to interview several applicants.
A tall, very thin woman in a blue trouser-suit, with white hair coiled on top of her head in thick plaits which formed a coronet, Mrs. Butler had impressed her on sight. From beneath thin brows she had flashed a glance at her out of eyes of so vivid a blue that one blinked when they opened wide. Her nose had been high, arched and imperious, her mouth generously wide, her chin obstinate, to say the least.
She was not a woman one could easily forget— eccentric, determined and memorable. Kate had felt sure that if she did take the job, when it was offered, she would never find her life dull. It might be exasperating, even alarming at times, but never dull.
The journey from her old home in Devon had taken so long that she had spent the previous night in London, horrified by the noise of traffic and the pace of life in a great city.
It was balm to the soul to stand here, on this small country, railway station, and hear the birds singing, the wind bending the grass and the eerie singing of the wires overhead.
This was the last stage of her long journey. The little district line train had been overdue for ten minutes. The station porter had seemed cheerfully indifferent to this fact when she enquired, and, accustomed to country ways, she had accepted his excuse.
Her companion was less amenable. He was tackling the porter again, in sharp tones. The porter vanished into some inner sanctum and after some delay returned, looking sulky.
"Seemingly," he began in his slow drawl, "there won't be no down train for an hour or so. Trouble on the line up there somewhere. They say it'll take a bit of a while to clear the line."
The executive type exploded with wrath. The porter shrugged his inability to do anything about the situation.
"If you don't want to wait along here, best you get the bus into town and get one of them hire cars."
The executive type glanced across at Kate, lifting one brow. "May I offer you a lift? You'll have a long wait."
She looked at her heavy suitcase, then at him, doubtfully. The porter nodded at her.
"You'll be all right with the gentleman, miss," he assured her. "I've seen him on the train now and then."
The other man gave them both an infuriated look, then bent and picked up her suitcase, grunting in surprise at the weight.
"I'm sorry," she said nervously. "It's full of books."
"I thought you must collect rocks," he commented.
"I'll take it," she said, reaching out a hand.
He swung round, gripping her by the elbow. "Come along. I imagine I can manage this weight. I'm not incapable."
She saw that she had offended him, so did not protest further. The porter watched them, grinning, but his grin vanished when her companion gave him one of his hard looks.
They caught a one-decker bus outside the station which dropped them a short walk from a car-hire firm. Half an hour later they were well on their way along narrow country lanes.
"You said you were making for Abbot's Marsh," her companion observed, glancing at her.
Dragging herself back from the trance into which she had fallen while contemplating the gentle unfolding of the leaves on the elms, Kate nodded. "Yes."
He exclaimed in irritation, "You are really the most uncommunicative girl I've ever met! Most females are eager to launch themselves into an ocean of small-talk. You have to be forced into committing yourself to the most minute fragment of conversation."
She stared at him in astonishment. "My father disliked what he called chattering females," she confessed shyly.
He gave her another of his long, shrewd glances. "I see."
What, she wondered, did he see? She had learnt something about him during their time in the car-hire firm. The long form he had had to fill in had sketched in his background. She had read it nervously over his shoulder. His name, she learnt, was Nicholas Adams. Aged thirty-four. Profession: architect. He had given her a cool, dismissive stare when he caught her reading what he wrote, and, flushing, she had then moved away.
These slabs of fact had told her a little about him, but she was not competent to fill in the detail by observation. She merely registered his look of assurance, his successful glaze, and decided that he must be a good architect and an irritating man.
"Have you escaped from a nunnery?" he asked abruptly.
Surprise kept her silent. Then she said, "I beg your pardon?"
He gestured with a brief glance. "Your clothes, your unworldly air. They seemed to add up to some sort of cloistered existence."
"Hardly likely in this day and age," she said coolly.
He smiled, staring straight ahead at the road. "So mind my own business? I get the message. May I ask where you're going? Or is that, too, a purely private matter?"
"I thought we'd agreed that I was going to Abbot's Marsh?"
"I live there myself," he nodded. "I know everyone in the place. Are you visiting someone?"
"In a sense," she said, deliberately evasive.
He turned to look at her, and met warm brown smiling eyes that teased him gently. A grin broke on his face. The cold grey eyes crinkled charmingly.