Counterfeit Bride(4)

By: Sara Craven

Nicola flushed. 'I can't help it. I try to make it clear that I'm not interested, and then they get persistent, so what can I do?'

'You could try saying yes for once.' Elaine gave her a measuring look. 'Whatever went wrong in Zurich, sooner or later some guy's going to come along and make you forget all about it, only you have to give him a chance.'

'Perhaps,' Nicola said woodenly. 'But I can promise you that it's no one I've met so far.'

Probably there never would be anyone, she thought. She was on her guard now. Indeed, she had sometimes wondered if she would have fallen for Ewan quite so hard if she hadn't been confused and lonely, away from home for the first time.

Travelling, seeing the world, had always been her own idea ever since childhood, and her parents, recognising the wanderlust they did not share, had given her the loving encouragement she needed. Her undoubted gift for languages had been the original spur, and she was fluent in French and German before she had left school.

Nicola wondered sometimes where the urge to travel had come from. Her parents were so serenely content on their farm at Barton Abbas in Somerset. It was their world, and they needed nothing better, no matter how much they might enjoy her letters and photographs and stories of faraway places. And Robert, her younger brother, was the same. One day the farm would be his, and that would be enough for him too. But not for her. Never for her.

Now, she wasn't altogether sure what she wanted. Working for Trans-Chem had been more enjoyable than she could ever have anticipated. The company expected high standards of efficiency, but at the same time treated her with a friendly informality which she had never experienced in any previous job, and certainly not in Zurich. And they had been keen, as their contract to assist in a consultative capacity with the building of a new plant in Mexico's expanding chemical industry began to wind up, for her to work for them in the States on a temporary basis at least.

Nicola didn't really know why she'd refused. Certainly she had nothing better in mind, and there would have been no problem in fitting in her longed-for and saved-for sightseeing tour first. Yet refuse she did, and for no better reason than that she felt oddly restless.

Perhaps it was the anticipation of her holiday which was making her feel this way. The last months had been hectic, and the past few weeks of clearing out the office and packing up especially so.

She would miss Elaine, she thought. She'd been a little taken aback when she first arrived in Mexico City to find that she had a readymade flatmate waiting for her. How did she know that she and this tall redhaired Californian were ever going to get along well enough to share a home? And yet from the very first day, they'd had no real problems. And then, later, Teresita had made three ...

Nicola smiled to herself. Had there ever been a more oddly assorted trio? she wondered. Elaine with her cool laconic humour, and relaxed enjoyment of life, Teresita the wealthy orphan, shy and gentle and almost morbidly in awe of the guardian she never saw—and Nicola herself, a mass of hang-ups, as Elaine had once not unkindly remarked.

In some way, Nicola almost envied Teresita. At least she had few doubts about the world and her place in it. Her upbringing in the seclusion of the convent school had been geared to readying her for marriage, and a subservient role in a male-dominated society. The purpose of her life was to be someone's wife and the mother of his children, and she seemed to accept that as a matter of course.

Even her one small act of rebellion against her strictly ordered existence, her decision to move into the apartment with Nicola and Elaine, had contributed towards her chosen destiny, because without it, it was unlikely that her relationship with Cliff Arnold could have prospered.

They had met during Teresita's brief but eventful spell at the Trans-Chem reception desk. Cliff had been one of many finding himself suddenly cut off in the middle of an important call, and he had erupted into the reception area looking for someone to murder, then stopped, as someone remarked later, as if he'd been poleaxed, as he looked down into Teresita's heart-shaped face, and listened to her huskily voiced apologies. His complaints forgotten, he had spent the next half hour, and many more after that, showing her how to operate the switchboard.

As Elaine had caustically commented, it had improved nothing, but at least they'd had a good time.

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