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SHADES OF AUTUMN

 

Margaret Mayo

 

When she first went to work as secretary to Brad Stuart. Laura thought he was the most difficult and unreasonable man she had ever met. By the time she had come to understand him better, she had fallen hopelessly in love with him.

Then yet another disagreement threatened their relationship. Laura wondered if there would ever be any future in it.

 

CHAPTER ONE

LAURA was the only passenger to alight and with the departure of the train she felt suddenly alone and more than a little apprehensive. The whole place appeared deserted. Why was there no one to meet her? Hadn’t Brad Stuart received her letter?

She walked slowly towards a grey stone building at the other end of the platform. Presumably the station office, although with its neatly dug flower beds and curtained windows, it looked more like a country cottage.

As she approached, a bent old man in the navy uniform of British Rail appeared. He looked at Laura curiously before taking her ticket. ‘Visiting relatives?’

Laura shook her head, looking over his shoulder along the road leading from the station. ‘I hoped there would be someone to meet me. Someone from Leastone Hall. Is it far?’

‘About two miles. See yonder hills?’ A gnarled finger pointed in the distance. ‘Mr. Stuart’s house lies over there. It’s a fair walk, but you won’t miss it. A big black and white place—are you a friend of the family?’

‘No. I’m Mr. Stuart’s new secretary. Isn’t there a bus?’ Laura felt dismayed at the prospect of a two-mile walk. She wasn’t exactly dressed for the occasion.

' ’Fraid not—no buses on a Sunday
.'

‘A taxi, then?’ Surely she could get some sort of transport?

‘Not today.’ He looked doubtfully at her high-heeled shoes and the suitcase at her side. 'You could phone Mr. Stuart, ask him to send someone. He probably forgot about the buses.’

‘No—I’ll walk.' Anger against her future employer rose quickly. If Brad Stuart hadn’t thought to arrange transport she wouldn’t lower herself by asking. He must have known the difficulties she would encounter.

Head held high, she marched out of the station, noticing briefly the village to her left. Timbered cottages, the church spire thrusting upwards and the people making their way, home after morning service. At any other time she would have been entranced, but at the moment she was too annoyed to give it more than a cursory glance.

Again Laura wondered whether she had done the right thing in moving out of her London flat. It had seemed a good idea at the time and the salary Brad Stuart offered was staggeringly high, which had certainly helped her decide. But still persisting at the back of her mind, like a warning bell, were David’s words that Brad Stuart had difficulty in keeping a secretary. There must be a reason, and she wished now that she had taken the trouble to find out why.

If only David had not decided to emigrate there would have been no need for her to change her job. For three years, ever since leaving secretarial college at the age of eighteen, she had been his secretary. He worked as a freelance advertising consultant and she loved the variety of work involved. She was shocked when suddenly he told her that he was closing down the business, as she was a little in love with David herself. Unfortunately for her he was happily married, so she had been forced to keep her feelings hidden.

It was David who suggested she might like to work for his friend who lived in Shropshire and impulsively she had agreed. She had never really settled in London and the thought of living in the country again was tempting.

Now she began to regret her decision. The road which had looked deceptively level when she started was gradually climbing and her legs ached with the unaccustomed exercise.

‘I’ve half a mind to return to London,’ she said aloud. ‘If this is the way he treated his other secretaries it’s no wonder they didn’t stay. What does he think we are? Amazons?’ She flung herself down on the grass verge with scant regard for the new green suit in which she had dressed so carefully a few hours earlier, Kicking off her shoes, she ruefully examined her blistered heels. ‘How shall I finish the journey?’ she asked herself in dismay.

The road was deserted. Sadly she realised that no traffic had passed her at all during the time she had been walking. Brad Stuart certainly lived far from civilisation. David had not prepared her for that.

Painfully continuing her journey, Laura wished she had never agreed to come in the first place. The road now rose steeply as it formed a pass between the hills. Almost on the verge of collapse, she rounded a bend, breathing a sigh of relief as she glimpsed the house between the trees.

Pushing open the heavy iron gates, Laura limped along the drive, its edges encroached on either side by glossy rhododendron bushes and heavy woodland, temporarily blocking the black and white building from view.

Laura stopped, changing her suitcase to her other hand. Surely it was twice as heavy now? Her bag slung over her shoulder, she took a step forward, almost bumping into a figure which had silently appeared.

‘Don’t you know this is private property?’ demanded an imperious voice.

Laura looked at the tall, broad-shouldered man confronting her, noticing briefly the deep tan and glittering grey eyes. His hair, black and wiry, curled just below his ears. He was dressed in shabby grey trousers and navy sweater.

‘I’m well aware of that
.'
Laura’s green eyes flashed— a warning sign if he only knew it. ‘As a matter of fact I’m Mr. Stuart’s new secretary, so if you wouldn’t mind telling me where I can find him—’

The grey eyes disconcertingly raked her from head to toe. Laura became conscious of her dishevelled appearance, her crumpled, mudstained skirt and laddered tights.

‘You
are Miss—er—Templeton?’ He looked as if he could not believe his eyes.

'I am. If Mr. Stuart had had the good manners to send someone to meet me I shouldn’t be in this state. Now perhaps you’ll—’

‘Just a minute, Miss Templeton. Mr. Stuart went himself to meet you
.'

'In that case, why didn’t I see him? I can assure you there was no one at the station
.'

‘That’s right,’ he answered grimly.

What did he mean? thought Laura. The man was talking in riddles. Who was he anyway—a gardener? What right had he to speak to her in such a highhanded manner?

‘Would you mind explaining?’ she said at last.

‘You were due to arrive on Thursday. I made a special point of being there to meet you—wasting valuable time in the process. I think it’s you who should be doing the explaining.'

Quick colour flooded Laura’s cheeks, her heart dropped. So this was Brad Stuart! Why hadn’t he said so instead of letting her ramble on about his bad manners? And what did he mean, she should have been here on Thursday? Hadn’t he himself suggested today? She set down her suitcase and searched in her handbag. ‘I apologise if I’ve been rude, but I have your letter with me. I know you said today.’

‘My dear Miss Templeton,’ with ill-concealed impatience, 'I know exactly what I put in my letter to you. There’s no need for that.’ The thick dark brows were drawn together and he towered above her like an angry giant.

‘Here you are,’ she said at last, determined to prove her point. ‘You’ll see I’m right.’

His square brown hands deftly unfolded the sheet of notepaper and he scanned the page before thrusting it back. ‘October the fifth,’ he said shortly. ‘Just as I thought.’

‘B—but it can’t be!’ With the queerest feeling in the pit of her stomach Laura looked at the scrawling writing. Surely she hadn’t been mistaken? Unhappily she realised that the figure did resemble a five, although she had taken it for an eight. ‘Oh, dear.’ She looked up apologetically. ‘I’m sorry. I suppose I should have made sure—but I did sent a letter telling you which train I was taking.’

‘Of course,’ he jeered. ‘Arriving at twelve, you said, but how about the date? Didn’t you think to confirm that? The competent Miss Templeton! What a fool I was to believe David. He was obviously taken in by your pretty face and didn’t mind whether you were efficient or not.’ He eyed her slim, taut figure insolently, causing Laura to retort:

‘If that’s your opinion I may as well go back to London!’

She picked up her case and turned away, but before she had taken more than a few steps felt a heavy hand on her shoulder. ‘Miss Templeton, there are no more trains today. And judging by that limp you’ll never reach the station. Let me take your case. My housekeeper will show you where you can tidy yourself and then perhaps we’ll be able to discuss matters more rationally.’

His voice was softer, but his expression remained grim as he led the way, Laura following meekly in his wake. Suddenly the shrubs and trees thinned out and across a wide expanse of shining lawn Laura saw at closer quarters the house that David had lightly referred to as ‘a rambling place in the country
.'

It was a splendid Tudor-style building. The windows gleamed like molten gold in the afternoon sunshine and the black timbers stood out in sharp relief. As she looked at the gabled stone roof Laura glimpsed a face looking down from one of the windows. As quickly as it appeared it was gone and she was left with the feeling that perhaps it had been imagination.

Mr. Stuart opened the huge studded door, waiting impatiently for Laura to enter. The large hall was dim after the bright sunlight. Her shoes echoed on the marble floor. When her eyes became accustomed to the gloom she was unprepared for the elegant splendour of her surroundings. Exquisite pictures adorned the pale gold walls and an urn of beautifully arranged flowers stood in one corner. A curved staircase led to the upper regions and down these stairs now came a smiling woman in a plain black dress. Laura judged her to be in her early fifties. Small, neat, with a round, cheerful face, she was presumably the housekeeper.

The woman looked searchingly at Laura before speaking to her employer, who had put down Laura’s suitcase and already had his hand on a door to their right. ‘Mr. Anderson telephoned a few minutes ago. Said it was urgent and would you ring him back.’ And then reproachfully, ‘You didn’t tell me you were expecting company, Mr. Stuart. Will the young lady be staying to tea?’

'I should imagine so, Jenny.'

For the first time Laura noticed a humorous twinkle in his eyes. So he wasn’t always the forbidding character he made out.

‘This is Miss Templeton—my housekeeper, Mrs. Jennings.'

For a second surprise registered on Mrs. Jennings' pleasant face, but she quickly pulled herself together. ‘It’s good to see you, miss. Shall I show Miss Templeton to her room, Mr. Stuart?’

‘Please. Then we’ll have tea in my study.' He disappeared behind the well-polished oak door. Mrs. Jennings picked up Laura’s suitcase and crossed towards the imposing stairway.

‘Let me carry that,' urged Laura. ‘It’s far too heavy for you.'

‘I might, look frail, but I’m very strong,' said the housekeeper over her shoulder. ‘I thrive on hard work.’

They turned right at the top, along a narrow carpeted corridor. ‘Here you are,’ said Mrs. Jennings, opening a door. ‘Your room’s all ready, even though we thought you weren’t coming.’ Her voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. ‘What happened to delay you? Mr. Stuart wasn’t half cross.’

‘I misread his writing, thought it was today I should come.’ Laura smiled ruefully, realising instinctively that Mrs. Jennings could prove a useful ally should she decide to keep the job.

‘Never mind. I expect he’s glad you’re here.’

If that’s the case, thought Laura, he has a funny way of showing it. Aloud she said, 'You’re probably right. What a beautiful room this is.’ She touched the peach satin bedspread, noticing how perfectly it matched the walls. Gold velvet hung at ]the window and a thick oatmeal carpet covered the floor. ‘Has Mr. Stuart always lived here?’

‘Oh, no,’ replied Mrs. Jennings, lingering in the doorway. ‘About three years. Before that it was a Mr. Partridge and his wife, but they weren’t like Mr. Stuart. Money makes no difference to him. He’s a real gentleman. Treats me as though I was his mother most of the time.’

Laura was surprised to hear Mrs. Jennings’ opinion of Brad Stuart. During the few minutes spent in his company she had found him thoroughly disagreeable. ‘What happened to the Partridges? Why did they leave this beautiful house?’

‘They moved down south. Wanted something better. Sold it just as it was, furniture, the lot.’

‘Didn’t they ask you to go with them?’ Laura studied herself through the mirror, noticing with dismay her untidy hair and smudge across her forehead. No wonder Brad Stuart had doubted her identity.

Mrs. Jennings snorted disdainfully. ‘They asked me all right, but Mrs. Partridge put it in such a way that I knew I wasn’t wanted. So when Mr. Stuart asked me if I’d stay on, I jumped at the chance.’

‘I’ll say one thing for her,’ said Laura, sliding her fingers over the lustrous walnut top of the dressing table. ‘She had good taste in furniture. Queen Anne, isn’t it? I don’t know much about antiques, but everything here looks the genuine thing.’

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