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Грэхем Линн

Bittersweet Passion

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HER lips parted company in a soundless gasp. She glanced down at her faded and unutterably respectable nightie and the comfortable bed she now lay in. Dane was already opening the curtains. ‘Do you realise you left your key in the door last night?’ he demanded. ‘I came round to take you out somewhere and there it was. An open invitation to any passer-by.’

‘Did you put me to bed?’ she snapped in strong chagrin.

Dane drew back into her line of vision, his amused smile no longer blurred. ‘Is it my fault you’re a heavy sleeper? You didn’t even stir. Go on, eat your breakfast. I bumped into the waitress on the threshold,’ he explained. ‘Hannah will be here in an hour.’

‘Don’t talk to me as if I’m a child,’ she implored.

He studied her from the foot of the bed. ‘With that mascara and shadow still smeared over you like warpaint, you don’t look a day above eighteen. Why did you let them cut off so much of your hair?’

Her hand brushed the tousled strands anxiously. ‘I like it. Don’t you?’

He grinned at the guileless question. ‘It’s fine, but it makes you look very different. Maybe Max won’t like it.’ His vibrant eyes narrowed, an odd, questioning inflection in his final sentence. ‘Have you contacted him yet?’

‘No, he’s not on the phone,’ she replied, then hesitated, reluctant to discuss Max with so critical an audience. ‘Where were you going to take me last night?’

His bright gaze was lingering on her soft mouth, an odd tension humming in the air that made her feel uncomfortable. He shrugged, breaking the spell and swinging back to the door. ‘I hadn’t decided. Maybe I’ll see you later.’

As always, he looked devastating. No matter how often she saw him his impact assaulted her feminine senses afresh, and yet she was at ease with the sensation. It was an old familiar one. ‘Dane?’

His argent head turned.

‘Thanks,’ she said.

‘It’s no big deal, Claire.’ He sounded rather curt, as if something had annoyed him.

She couldn’t think what and was rather hurt by the brevity of his stay. But he’d only come to check up on her. He’d probably been relieved, too, to find her asleep last night. Taking her out for an entire evening would have been an enormous sacrifice. Still, she understood why he had come up with the idea. Sometimes Dane was quite transparent. His conscience was a little uneasy about sticking her into a hotel alone. She would very likely have felt a dreadful nuisance being trotted out dutifully, the way one organised entertainment for a child. So it was silly to suffer a twinge of disappointment over what she might have missed.

Resolutely she thrust Dane from mind. Tonight she was bound to see Max. Her thoughts centred on him with something akin to relief. Why did it seem so long since the summer before last when Max had begun work at Ranbury? Perhaps because so much had happened since then.

She had grown accustomed to Max’s cheerful greetings when she was out on her daily walks. Their relationship might never have got any closer had not Max literally cannoned into her one day coming out of a village shop.

Spluttering apologies, he had stooped to pick up the basket she had dropped, and before he had straightened again he had invited her out to lunch in a friendly, casual style that had failed to ignite her usual shy discomfiture. She had found him easy to relax with. Away from family and friends he had been lonely.

Frustrated by Roy Baxter’s contempt for ‘new-fangled ideas’, he had been eager for a good listener. Her feelings had deepened the more time she spent in his company. He had freely admitted that he was keen to settle down and marry, an attitude she had considered refreshing when it seemed so many men were only interested in uncommitted relationships. Nor had he laughed or looked superior when she had finally confided that he was really her first real boyfriend.

Falling in love had been so very easy. They had seemed to match perfectly, neither of them particularly outgoing and both of them slightly shy. She had been so happy when he had proposed, but that mood hadn’t lasted beyond her harrowing interview with Adam.

‘Thinks he’s on to a good thing, does he?’ he had condemned unpleasantly. ‘Well, he’ll soon find his mistake.’

The next morning Max had been gone. In his first letter he had explained that he hadn’t wanted to create another scene by coming up to the house before he left. Being fired must have been a most humiliating experience for him. He was not someone to cope easily with stress or hostility. She had always seen that softness in his character and didn’t think it made him any less of a man, though Maisie had been disappointed in him. ‘He should have taken you with him,’ she had said, innocent of Adam’s blackmailing tactics. Claire smiled. Max wasn’t the dramatic type. He’d had nothing to take her to. Still, if he’d asked she might have felt less abandoned at the time. She felt remorseful then for the carping thought that Max had put up a poor fight for her. He wasn’t a slayer of dragons as Dane was, and he’d never pretended to be.

Hannah arrived punctually and suggested they visit Harrods first. Claire kept her own counsel when they entered the vast department store. A large, expensive wardrobe would be of scant use to her as Max’s wife and, as she had every intention of repaying Dane, she very carefully inspected price tags, drawing back in dismay from much of what Hannah admired.

‘But you’d look lovely in this,’ Hannah persisted, displaying a fine, crěpe de Chine dress in an elegant black, white and jade print. ‘It’s the latest fashion, Claire, and you have a lovely figure. It’s a sin not to show it off at your age.’

An assistant joined the fray and Claire was persuaded. It would do for the wedding, she told herself. In no time it seemed that she had also agreed to a new coat, a rather stylish jacket and a flying suit that appealed to her new sense of what was fashionable. Hannah continued to remind her that Dane was expecting her to renew her entire wardrobe, and Claire selected some jeans and sweaters, a couple of washable silk shirts as well as an array of new underwear

‘You’ll need one evening outfit,’ Hannah insisted.

Claire allowed her companion to urge her into a strappy, electric-blue sheath dress, which of course had to have shoes and an evening purse to match. Then she firmly pronounced herself satisfied.

‘What’s your wedding dress like?’ Hannah pressed cheerfully over lunch in a quiet, exclusive restaurant. ‘And dare I ask about your future husband, too?’ She smiled. ‘You’re as secretive about him as some ladies are about their age. I gather he’s not in business. You didn’t seem interested in evening wear.’

Under Hannah’s warm, inquisitive gaze, she blushed. ‘It’s to be a very quiet wedding because of my grandfather’s recent death,’ she said hurriedly, for she hated to lie. ‘And I’ll wear an ordinary dress, not a gown … She was fumbling to think of something bland to say about her future husband when a slim, dark-haired man in a tailored grey suit stopped by their table.

‘You have to be Claire.’ He extended a well kept hand and gave Hannah a teasing grin. ‘What harm can I do, Hannah?’

‘Claire, this is Monsieur le Freneau,’ Hannah said reluctantly.

‘You see, I met Dane in the Dorchester and, since it’s hardly his normal haunt, stopped to ask what he was doing there,’ he proffered. ‘You can only be his cousin. Strange, Dane left me with the impression that you were an adolescent in pigtails.’

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