Struggling to keep her wits about her, she said,
“I didn't think it was even habitable,”
“Oh, it isn't,” he replied, “I'm living in the town for now. At the Royal Hotel.”
|The Royal Hotel|
Lucy felt an absurd urge to invite him to stay with her – after all, the cottage had once been part of the great house's grounds, and anyway, it would be much more convenient for him to oversee the work from here – but then felt foolish and ashamed. Had she learnt nothing? What was the point of fancying somebody so far beyond her, so clearly unattainable? Get over it, she told herself, and face the facts: you'll always be alone.
All the same, “Would you like to come in and have some tea?” she asked, obedient as always to her mother's lessons in good manners.
“Oh, you live here?” he said, surprised.
“Yes,” she said, “It used to be the gatehouse for the old mansion, but years ago it was sold and I inherited it when my mother died last year.”
He frowned. “I'm so sorry,” he said, looking as if he meant it.
“Thank you,” replied Lucy. She couldn't help herself looking at his left hand for a wedding ring. There wasn't one. But this meant nothing. She was embarrassed at her behaviour. Just because there was a new man in town, she didn't have to assume that he was available. Just because she was so alone and lonely didn't mean he'd be interested in her in the slightest. Maybe he had a girlfriend. Of course he had a girlfriend! After all, he was apparently wealthy and well known, and possessed the sort of looks usually found in the pages of one of the better men's fashion magazines.
“By the way, I'm Lucy Grady,” she said, as much to take her mind off his chin, now almost imperceptibly darkened by five-o'-clock shadow, which she had a sudden, wild urge to caress.
“Pleased to meet you,” he smiled politely. “I should be delighted to have some tea.”
Because he seemed to her like a squire or lord of the manor, and because she wanted to impress (she admitted to herself with some self-disgust), she made him tea using her mother's flowered Spode teapot and matching cups. If it had been anyone else, they would have been given tea in a mug, with a teabag, but he seemed so grand … so upper class … so different. She felt she had to bring out the Sunday best. While the kettle was boiling, she took the chance to race up the narrow wooden stairs to her bedroom, and leaning towards the mottled old mirror, ran her hands through her dark auburn hair which would insist on tangling itself about her shoulders no matter how she attempted to tame it with clips and barrettes. Her pale cheeks were flushed enough, she decided ruefully, flushing all the more at her utter foolishness. She slid some peach lip gloss over the curve of her wide mouth – too wide, she always thought – and then hastily rubbed it off and tried the colourless lip gloss instead. Her hazel eyes gazed back hopefully at her and seeing the forlorn hope, she snorted in derision. Lucy Grady, she chastised herself, pull yourself together! Remember your place, you are a silly school teacher in a one-horse town with no hope of attracting this gorgeous man's attention, so stop making a fool of yourself! And taking a tissue, she savagely rubbed off the lip gloss, shook her head, sighed deeply and went down the narrow stairs. He was standing at the piano, the photo of her mother in his hand. He glanced up at her.
“Do forgive me,” and her carefully replaced the photo. “Was this your mother?”
“Yes,” Lucy replied softly. She didn't realise how sad she sounded. Adam raised his eyes to hers and his look was so gentle and puzzled, the deep blue of his look unfathomable, yet revealing an unexpected compassion, that she found herself near to tears. She quickly poured the tea, bending to hide her expression from him – for once glad of the mass of dark auburn curls that swept forward to hide her face as she handed him the cup and saucer. She felt if she met his gaze once more, the intensity would scorch her. Her hand trembled. He steadied the cup with his own long brown fingers and his hand touched hers for a moment. His touch was warm, vibrant, his skin felt as though it had an electric life to it and she could feel the sinews and muscles tense and alive beneath. She put the cup down and pulled her hand back, feeling that her face was naked, and that everything she felt was written there in capital letters.
“So tell me,” she said, a little breathless, desperate to get the atmosphere back to normality, “What exactly are you going to have to do to get the house livable again?”
He turned away and looked through the small-paned window at her small garden and beyond that, to the rolling parklands that led up to the mansion.
“Well,” he said, his voice now cool and businesslike, “Rather more than I had thought initially. Already the builders are shaking their heads. It looks as if the floorboards will have to be pulled up and replaced, some of the roof timbers, too. And of course all the electrics are old fashioned. But the structure is sound. It is a stone house. It was built to last.”
It struck her that someone who could afford to do this work must be immensely rich. She envied him a little because she had to survive on a modest income which didn't extend to luxuries. She suddenly noticed that he was staring at her mother's photo again. Without warning he put the cup down and stood up. His face was grim. “I need to go.” His voice was cold, distant. He strode towards the door. “Thank you for the tea.” And with that he was gone.