ALL of the key events in Douglas Stanton's life have, up to this point, without exception, been caused by a tea cup.

When he was fourteen and struggling to find a place to settle in the battleground of his football-mad classroom, his Great Aunt Sylvia upped and died. Much to his father's horror, Douglas had been bequeathed her lusterware tea service. He did not find it the least amusing that she had remembered that on his son's one and only visit, when he had been barely eleven and on his best behaviour, Douglas had been quite awed by it. His father, after all, only had stoneware mugs at home. No, his father was not impressed by that at all.

In truth, Douglas had been terrified of breaking the delicate cup she handed him with her shaking, bleached batskin hands and quite perplexed about how to pick up the tiny cup while balancing not only a saucer and spoon, but also a tea plate (which he had stacked with glee with French Fancies; it was always fruitcake at home, and he was sick to death of currents), given that he could barely fit his pudgy finger through the delicate handle. It all felt rather posh. If he was honest, he'd have preferred the type of mug he could dunk digestives in, but the sparkle of it all was quite alluring.

"Aspire to seek out beauty," she had said while he sat there, trying not to fidget. "In whatever form it comes. Do not be afraid of it," she had warned, casting a look at his father that eleven year old Douglas did not understand in the slightest.

"Do not be afraid to love."

He had no idea what beauty had to do with anything and even less why it might cause fear, but he had stopped himself from wrinkling his nose and had nodded instead.

"Yes Miss. I mean, Great Aunt."

It was this same tea cup that he found a few years after Great Aunt Sylvia's death, at sixteen, when he was rummaging around under his bed, looking through boxes for something to sell to get a little holiday money together, because his father had refused to help fund a trip to Spain. He had unpacked the object from the dusty, yellowing tissue paper and a broad smile had sprung to his face. There was a way to week all alone with his best friend, Michael.

Douglas was well aware that the fragile, pink toned thing, complete with undamaged gilding around the top lip, could turn quite easily into his plane ticket. Proud of himself for unearthing such a treasure, he had quietly taken the teacup along to a shop in his local high street that had all kind of interesting knick-knacks in the crooked panelled window. His chest tightened in excitement at the thought of calling Michael up to say that he could go after all.

However, when the smartly suited, spectacled gentleman examined the teacup with one suspicious eye firmly fixed on Douglas's tattered jeans, he began to wonder about his idea. He was filled with teenage uncertainty and outrage, when that eyebrow raised just slightly and the throat cleared.

"Tell me, where did you get this?"

"My Great Aunt left it to me. In her will. Sir."

"I see. That's... lucky."

The young Douglas Stanton had the strangest feeling that he was being accused of having something he most definitely was not supposed to have in his possession. Insulted and confused by the virtual accusation of theft, Douglas took his teacup and he left the tiny shop in his local high street, ears burning as the echo of the small bell above the door jangled in them, and the dreams of his holiday faded to a dull longing. Michael took Stuart Grove instead and he was never asked again.

At home, he placed the cup on the very top shelf of his bookcase, nestled in between King Lear (which he had never read, even though he was supposed to for school) and a volume of W H Auden's poems (of which he loved every single page).

He didn't give the piece of china another conscious thought, until a year and a half later, when something prompted him to pack the lone cup carefully into his bag, just before he left for his first term of university.

His place had been hard won, not least because his father had insisted on "Somet' sensible. Never mind your English or your Social History. Economics, Business Studies – that's what you want. Engineering, lad. A proper, useful degree," but Douglas was not altogether very good at useful subjects.

So the teacup came to university with him, and it sat on his bookshelf all through his first year, watching him struggle with formulas and concepts that he didn't care about.

It had watched him try to seek out the beauty that his Great Aunt had talked about and watched him come home with worthless shiny things, week after week. Bright, smiling, sparkly-eyed nothings, who laid him out on his mattress and promised him the world, but quite often left before he was properly awake the very next morning.

The teacup was right there when he reached final frustration over his exams, and it glinted down when he got the marks for those papers back and he could only stare at them in dread. When he sighed and looked up to the ceiling in search of some kind of answer from Above, a flash of that pink lustre caught his eye and he remembered Great Aunt Sylvia, whom he had only met once, and her tea set resting on her delicately turned mahogany table, and her smile perfectly serene.

A plan formed in the nearly nineteen year old brain of Douglas Stanton, and much to his father's dismay, his Sensible Degree fell by the wayside.

Douglas had caught The Bug without even knowing it. Great Aunt Sylvia had sparked a quest for beauty and if he was not to find it in people, then he would find it somewhere else.

The teacup urged him on to his first antique fair, which he turned up at full of that same trepidation he had felt in the small shop on the high street of his home town. But as he looked around the small hall, crowded with tables which were cluttered with every object you could imagine, Douglas began to notice that certain things seemed to call his attention more than others.

The young man nervously made his first substantial purchase a few weeks later, and another followed while browsing through the local charity shop. Douglas could not fight the feeling that these things he picked out were better than the things around them. Above all, he liked them.

He began to read, fervently – manuals on this and that, and books about style and design. He studied maker's marks and prominent names with more frequency and enthusiasm than he'd had picking up his text books. Whenever he was free from classes, he followed the circuit of fairs, browsing the stalls to sharpen his knowledge and tentatively expanding his collection.

Most vitally, he learnt a single phrase that would clear avenues for him, like a muttered 'Open Sesame'. The insider's sentence – the question that's a low nod, a secret handshake – a sure sign that you are one of the inner sanctum and a way in to a slightly better deal - Is that your very best price?

Douglas Stanton learnt to bargain and his collection of objects began to grow. The man was fortunate enough to be gifted with a Good Eye.

He dropped out of university before completing his degree, but kept that a close secret from his father until he had a reasonable trade going. Even then, the two of them departed from civilities when the revelation was made, but Douglas didn't care. For once, he enjoyed what he was doing and the beauty he was chasing didn't seem so hollow.

Each of the items he found was perfect and loved – with delicate brushwork, or finely tooled carving. Silver edgings on jewellery boxes, or pocket watches tempered to look so soft and inviting seemed almost warm to the touch. Each item had signs of wear – of all the human hands that passed over them, but still the items he bought remained pristine. The slight imperfections were only signs of love.

He would visit fairs during the week to buy, and sell at the weekends. Occasionally he would scan the obituaries in the paper and join the clamour of business that always erupted with people vying to do a house clearance in the better off areas of town, but that always felt rather ghoulish. Still, he was starting out, and with limited funds, had to build his stock somewhere.

By the time the teacup and the whole of that lusterware service had ceased to hold so much sentimental value, Douglas Stanton had three things worth mentioning - a living room full stacked full of boxes, a rather decrepit station wagon, and a constantly irate landlord who he earnestly tried to avoid.

Besides his teacups and little object d'art Douglas Stanton had very little to keep him happy. He no longer chased those bright, gleaming people who had held such fascination for him in his early years of escape from home; they seemed no more substantial than surface glitter and sequins. Douglas was no longer awed by that kind of glint and glamour, but he had not yet found anyone else worth his eye.

What he did have, were trestle tables. It was these that ultimately caused another pivotal event in Douglas' life, but it was once again the teacup that really drove everything home.

Now, at twenty seven, he could be found dressed in a second hand tweed hunting jacket and trousers, loading these cumbersome trestles into his car at the usually rarely seen four thirty in the morning. One might think that a very suspicious sight indeed, but an hour later than this, most days found Douglas in exactly the same position. That was and is the way the trade goes – early mornings and all over by late lunchtime, but four thirty was just a shade too 'last night' for Douglas to do anything other than grudge being awake.

Although he had been to bed early the night before, the hastily grabbed mug of coffee had not yet had time to settle in and this resulted in him trapping his finger between the folding leg and the base – with an efficient, bone-crunching lever provided by the hinge.

Douglas Stanton dropped the table and much to his misfortune, his foot (specifically one of his smaller toes) took the brunt of the damage.

He swore a little, of course, and kicked the offending table until it threatened to topple over in retaliation and crush his beautifully shined shoes. He had never been a vastly tall man, making just under six foot at seventeen and firmly staying there and he was certainly no heavy weight. Douglas decided, given that he had no delusions at all about his stature and build, that reasoning with the table might very well prove more fruitful than wrestling with it.

"Just get in the car nicely and we won't say any more about it."

Thankfully, the table did not answer back.

While the teacup had stayed at home, packed away so as not to be mixed in with all of Douglas's stock, the tables had followed him everywhere over the last few years. They had seen his progression from the rather mangy boot sales, where he set them up side by side with ten year old boys selling off rollerblades and Lego from a groundsheet, to the cheaper antique fairs, with craft stalls around the edges, and then finally he had edged his way up to the more exclusive Country House affairs, that required an invitation for a trader to have a stall.

More sleep deprived than usual, Douglas began to load the car and twenty minutes later he had not an inch of the rear window free to peer through. Glancing in his rear view mirror, as he turned onto the motorway, he did however catch sight of a box that should not have been there at all.

In his distracted state, Douglas had loaded his Great Aunt's tea set into the car. This action, in combination with his aching toe, caused by the treacherous trestle table, resulted in a rather major event indeed.

The estate where the fair was to take place was quite a way into the country, and a good deal further than Douglas would usually drive to sell his wares on a weekly basis. Even with the traffic-free road, Douglas had only turned off the motorway at a little after half past five.

He was later than he would have liked to be. With all of these things, it always paid to arrive early enough to set up tables and display goods for the very first swarm of customers, and even those fellow dealers who think that they could do better than you with an item on your table. By six thirty, most things should already be set up. Doors would be open by seven.

Soon enough he had turned onto a narrow road, weaving between high hedges bordering farmers' fields at near right-angles. The visibility was poor and the dim, orange-grey light of the dawn only added to the difficulties presented by those sharp corners, but Douglas was desperate to arrive on time. The needle on his speedometer remained high, only bobbing briefly into each turn.

There were too many dealers who had been around since before he was born, who already looked at him and his stall with disdain and a low muttering of "Amateur." Douglas Stanton could not afford to be late.

Unfortunately, he was going to be. Douglas's crushed toe was bothering him after two hours driving and it was proving quite a distraction. In fact, the digit had swelled quite dramatically, but Douglas was not to know that without removing his beautifully polished shoe.

This was not a good time to be distracted by anything. Around the next bend there were four things which were to impact greatly on the future path of his life.

The first of these was one Robert Black, a rather down-to-earth farmer, just a few years younger than our Mr Stanton but a good deal more secure in himself. He was the kind of man that even Douglas's father would have to grudgingly admit to calling 'solid' and the word would be as accurate about his character as his lean build; the second of these was his flock of Blue-Faced Leicesters (sheep, for those not in the know) who were at that precise moment being moved out to pasture; the third was his sheep dog, Ben – a scruffy, but terrifyingly obedient collie cross; and the fourth was a ditch, lurking rather suspiciously by the side of the road, as ditches tend to do.

To call it a disaster would be a slight exaggeration, but it certainly seemed that way to poor Douglas when adrenaline surged as the dog dashed out from nowhere, barking manically. When he felt an impact – a horrifically sickening bump – poor Douglas was convinced he had killed the beast.

He had however, thankfully, succeeded in avoiding it with his instinctive swerve. But the road was very narrow and the flock flowing from the open field gate had left him with no options. Douglas Stanton's station wagon was now very much stuck, nose first in a ditch.

Worse than the predicament he had found himself in, Douglas had heard a sound that sends shivers of dread down the spine of any Antique Dealer worth his salt. When the force of the collision has ground him to an instant halt, Douglas Stanton had heard the sound of shattered china.

He sat behind the wheel in utter shock, quaking, in fact. He could not bring himself to move to discover the extent of the damage.

Then, the most surreal of things happened. The sheep flocked around the car as Douglas sat there staring straight ahead and slowly, out of the mass of white woolly jumpers waiting to be made, came Robert Black, shifting the animals along and making his way close enough to tap on the driver's side window.

The young farmer's forehead was a down-curve of concern as he peered inside, leaning an arm on the roof of Douglas's car. Usually there were more farm hands helping with a flock move and he would never have been relying on his dog to guide the way into the road, but just like Douglas, Robert had made some mistakes that morning and now, much to his horror, the mistake of trusting his dog a little too much, had resulted in this man turning his car into a ditch.

"You alright there?"

The stunned Douglas wound down his window automatically. Everything from that point on was rather automatic – the sound of breaking china still echoed through him and he barely had a hold of his senses.

"I said, you alright?"

When he turned to look at the man, he realised two things in quick succession. Firstly, that he was absolutely breathtaking – in the firm, forceful way that he longed for – the same beauty that made items speak to him from amongst the tat at stalls when he was desperately searching for stock to take home. This was what Great Aunt Sylvia had talked about all those years ago, and the tense shudder in his stomach that came when he looked into that open face made him understand immediately how beauty and fear could fit so neatly hand in hand. It was most certainly the deep woodland eyes that did it, despite the signs of tiredness, but the strong, lightly stubbled jaw most certainly helped. His hands were the type anyone would be glad to have roam their body; they looked perfectly capable of any task the farmer should decide to undertake.

Secondly, very quickly after this, Douglas became aware that his mouth was hanging slightly ajar.

He remedied that immediately, but he couldn't for the life of him think of what to say.

Words seemed trapped at the back of his throat and it was only after a few moments silence, in which Robert Black's smile seemed to bubble up from underneath his serious expression in a manner that suggested he almost found the situation funny, that Douglas managed to get anything out at all.

"It's broken," Douglas fairly near whispered in such a pained voice that the young farmer's frown appeared once again. The phrasing had caused a little confusion, especially since Douglas was showing no outward signs of extreme pain.

Ever practical, young Robert made no pause before yanking open Douglas's car door.

"The car? I don't doubt that. Lucky you're not. Lucky Ben's not with you taking the bend that fast."

Douglas sucked in a breath that he had clean forgotten to take. Mention of the dog (at least, he assumed that's who Ben was) jerked him out of his stupor. His hand shot up to clamp over his mouth – a ridiculous motion that suddenly felt entirely necessary.

"The dog. I hit the dog!"

Robert only shook his head, once again slightly amused by the strangely put together man before him. From the packed car and the dated, but very smart suit, Robert surmised that Douglas was on his way to the Country House Fair just down the road at the Grange Estate. Because of the influx of cars they were expecting, he had been moving the sheep as far away as possible within the pastures belonging to the farm. His head tilted slightly and then, instead of chastising the man for driving far too fast, he simply shrugged Douglas's concerns away.

"Ben's alright. Looking after the sheep, see." He gave a brief nod over his shoulder and Douglas relaxed when he saw that this was indeed the case.

"So, settle down. What's broken?"

You see, Douglas was not the only one of the two who had seen something to his liking. Great Aunt Sylvia's teacup knew exactly what it was doing.

"It went 'crunch' and that was it. I knew it."

Douglas cringed at the memory and something in his stomach surged with horrible certainty. That hand clamped to his mouth again.

"...I'm going to throw up."

Poor Douglas's chest tightened every time he thought about the state of the contents of his boot. He had an awful lot of china packed into the back of his car – all of his better stock. Things he had taken years to find and had shelled out vast sums of money on, because you have to speculate to accumulate, and oh, dear Lord, what if it was all gone?

It didn't occur to him that the young farmer would have no idea that when he spoke of broken things, he was talking about his stock. To him it was perfectly obvious. His entire livelihood was packed into the back, and right then there was every possibility that it was reduced to a pile of rather fancy drainage crocks. He could be facing bankruptcy. He'd have to crawl back to his father with a grovelled apology and admit to him that Sensible was the only proper way to go.

Robert knew none of this and could only assume that the driver or the car had sustained injuries that were much more serious than they seemed to be.

"Christ. Hold on - out o'the car. You alright to move?"

Douglas blinked at him, mouth open once again as he tried to comprehend how that would help anything at all.

Despite this, his shaky hands went to unclip his seat belt. He felt compelled to follow Robert's suggestions – everything he said seemed to hold such comforting logic, even though he didn't have the slightest idea why he wouldn't be alright to.

As Robert heaved him up from his seat, with a strong arm offering support under his arm that Douglas didn't really require, it somehow felt as though things might not be as entirely awful as he'd thought. The farmer had practically dragged him over to the hedge side, but Douglas found that he didn't have it in him to complain even as his broken toe throbbed inside his shoe.

The urge to vomit passed as he gulped in the damp morning air. It was remarkably strange to Douglas, to find himself standing in a ditch, surrounded by bleating sheep, with a rather gorgeous man in knee high rubber boots, encouraging him to spew his guts up.

He reached up to pat at Robert's arm, signalling that the threat had passed and the man could loosen his death grip. This was all quite emasculating. He'd never been 'rescued' before.

"I rather think I'm going to be alright now. Sorry about all this."

For a moment, when the sun glinted side on through the edge of Robert's iris, his eyes seemed gold and Douglas struggled to remember how to breathe.

"No bother."

The farmer's fingers took a while to peel away from his arms and a small silence fell, prickling dense with silent static until Robert cleared his throat loudly.

"You need a good strong cup of tea. That'll get you right."

It seemed the perfect solution. Any British citizen knows that the humble cup of tea is an indisputable cure-all. The kettle always got switched on at the first hint of disaster.

"Got a Thermos in the car?"

It was a little disconcerting how very pale Douglas seemed, but he at least managed to nod. Tea did sound like a remarkably good idea.

The ditch was not deep, but the ground was rutted and the sides were steep, slippery with uncut grass and matted autumn leaves. It was the time of year that made the light levels low and the roads slick enough for accidents like these.

Douglas's beautifully polished shoes were going to come out of this worse for wear. He took slight offence at the amused peak of Robert's lips when the farmer caught sight of them. He really hadn't intended to be struggling through mud when he'd put them on this morning.

He scuffled around to the boot of the car, only slipping a few times because of the absence of grip on the soles of his shoes, but Robert caught his arm every time he did, with a mild "Watch yourself," and no further fuss.

His hands were still shaking as he gripped the side of the car and rummaged through his things to find a knapsack.

When Ben, the ever-obedient collie cross, reached the edge of his tolerance, he barked sharply, reminding Robert of his increasingly unruly flock. Ben was most disapproving that his usually reliable master was letting his duties slip. It was very unlike him.

The young farmer rubbed at his neck and Douglas couldn't help but pause with his hands on the lid of his flask, half way through twisting it open, just because of the slight heat that seemed to flash across Robert's skin like a tinted porcelain glaze.

"I've got to get the sheep out of the road."

Things could not be put on hold to come to the rescue of a rather shell-shocked antiques dealer, not matter how interesting he might have seemed.

Robert, you see, had been struck by a certain something on coming face to face with Douglas Stanton. He had marched up to the car, expecting to give this obvious city-slicker a good, thorough rollocking, only to find himself thinking about another kind of rollocking entirely. Befuddled Douglas Stanton had him embarrassingly tongue-tied from the second he glanced up.

So, the two men found themselves sharing a rather awkward pause while it was established that Robert would return as soon as it was possible, with a tow-rope and his own car.

Ben was not at all impressed by his master's sloppy attitude that morning, and he made to tell him so, barking at every new mistake the man made, until Robert was forced to believe that the dog was trying to control him as much as the sheep.

Once he had settled them into their new field and done a quick check that all members of the flock were present and correct, Robert haired it back to his tiny two bedroom cottage that the landowner was kind enough to let him stay in as part of his wage.

Like all good farmers, Robert had a Land Rover Defender. It was the kind of indestructible beast that could stand up to nuclear warfare. It ate country ditches for breakfast, even if its exhaust did nothing to keep the greenery green. Stowed in the back, where it was always kept, was a rather large length of rope, only slightly frayed and oil stained.

Robert was confident that he could extract Douglas from his sticky situation, but whether or not that also meant he was to be extracted entirely from his life was another matter.

The teacup was not done yet.

When Robert came back, he found Douglas sitting by the ditch, with the remains of his Great Aunt's tea set strewn around him in the grass. Not a single item remained intact, though nothing else in his stock had come to any injury. His sense of loss, however, was enormous.

Robert didn't know what to make of the sight at all. He was not the kind of man who had any ambitions to own a tea set of any description, let alone a delicate-looking pink one, but he could tell, even from a careful distance, that the broken remains meant a lot to Douglas.

He offered an awkward grimace.

"I've got some glue in the car. That wouldn't help, though. Would it?"

Douglas laughed a little desperately. Indeed, it would not help at all. He shook his head.

"Not really, but thank you for the offer."

The two of them tied one car to the other and managed, after a fair amount of wheel spinning and flying mud, to extricate the vehicle.

Grateful despite his loss and still in awe of Robert's good looks, Douglas tentatively offered to buy him a pint for his troubles. It seemed like the right thing to do.

Much to his disappointment, the younger man looked at his watch.

"You're having a laugh. It's nine in the morning."

This stunned Douglas somewhat and he amended his offer rather hastily.

"...that cup of tea, then?" he asked, holding out his gleaming thermos flask in one hand and his fractured teacup in the other.

That made Robert smile and snort a little as he tried not to laugh too loudly.

To his credit, Douglas managed to laugh as well. There wasn't a great deal else he could have done.

It was then that they realised that they had not, in all the excitement, remembered to exchange names. There came about a rather hasty swapping of handshakes that started firm and lingered nicely, with a momentarily held stare from those warm, forest eyes. At that moment, Robert Black could have made all the jokes in the world about fine bone china and pink, floral designs and Douglas Stanton would have let him get away with every single one.

The two of them lent against the back of Douglas's car, passing the tiny mug from the flask between them until the morning was getting quite old. Glances shimmered between them and time seemed quite the enemy. The longer they stayed talking, the more horrible the prospect of leaving became. Douglas could not fathom a way to engineer another meeting, nor could he bring himself to offer any kind of casual words about keeping in touch. He longed for some kind of code that would allow understanding to pass between the two of them about whether preferences were shared, but that kind of thing had drifted out of fashion and the words had become less discrete and more incredibly obvious.

Do you speak German? Was simply remarkably opaque and open to misinterpretation because that was coming on for a century old, and there was no way he could bring himself to ask the down-to-earth farmer whether he was a friend of Dorothy. Even Douglas's father knew what that meant. It wasn't exactly subtle.

Robert, for his part, was well used to fantasy and it seemed to him that that's exactly what this chance encounter was, but goodness he hoped not. Since leaving agricultural college he'd not had much opportunity to mingle with men his own age or persuasion, and there wasn't much left to him around here but fantasy.

Occasionally he left himself indulge in sleepless nights over young Mark Green – the son of the owner of the local village shop – but that was as far as anything got.

This jolt in his stomach, powerful enough to make him forget not only about his dog, but also near-on thirty sheep, had to be more than that. Robert Black sincerely hoped that flicker of chemistry was not pure imagination.

Sadly, though, neither man quite plucked up the courage for anything more than heavily shrouded innuendo and it seemed that Douglas would rather chew a hole through his lip than offer up his telephone number, or heaven forbid, ask to have Robert's.

There wasn't much left to do once the car was back on the road than offer awkward thanks and a mumbled good bye.

"I'll be off, then. Thank you."

Although Robert only smiled and nodded out a soft, "Welcome," if you knew him, you would have read the slight unhappiness tugging at the corners of his eyes. Ben knew immediately that letting Douglas drive away was foolish, but his constant barking didn't seem to spur his master to do anything at all about it.

As for Douglas, he made his way back home in quite a daze. It really was a wonder that he made it back to his small flat in one piece. He unpacked his laden car on autopilot and spent the rest of the day carefully examining his stock for hairline cracks and other damages that might have been lurking.

In an almost superstitious manner, Douglas placed both fractured halves of one of the teacups in a central position on his mantle piece and it sat there watching him all through dinner.

The fractured teacup taunted him so much that when Douglas finally went to bed, he couldn't sleep at all. He pictured it sitting in his living room, whispering about cowardly men who wouldn't keep hold of beauty. Men who'd rather let their lives run away from them, than take what they truly wanted and Douglas had never felt such a failure in all of his days.

So it came to pass that Douglas was awake once again at a disgustingly early hour of the morning. He filled his thermos from the kettle, and he wrapped himself up in a soft wool jumper, olive corduroy trousers, thick walking socks and the sturdiest boots he owned, and then Douglas Stanton set off, out to his car.

He drove with the same set of nerves he'd had in his stomach the day before. The car would not seem to go fast enough and time spent on the motorway dragged. He tried to slow down just a little as he turned off and wound his way deeper into the countryside, following the same tight, twisting roads he had done the day before.

Soon enough, Douglas came to the corner where he had encountered Robert's sheep. This time, however, there was not a single fluffy body to be seen.

Douglas didn't know what to do.

Desperation surged as he realised that his plan had come to nothing. It seemed as though all was lost. With a deep breath, he gripped the wheel tightly and forcing his eyes closed, turned the car sharply into the ditch! He hit the brakes, just as he had done the day before and his neck jerked as the seatbelt froze with vicious efficiency. Once again, Douglas Stanton found himself staring through the windscreen at a slender tree trunk that was just inches away from causing a rather nasty dent in his bonnet, though this time it had happened quite purposefully.

He stared ahead at the hedge, pulse thrumming in his ears as he took stock of what he'd done. This really was the height of stupidity. For all he knew, Robert wouldn't come that way at all that morning.

Robert had other things to do that morning and that particular flock weren't due to move for a little while, but he did have to check on them. Unfortunately for Douglas, he came over the hills, walking with Ben, rather than by way of the road. Douglas sat there for what seemed like hours.

He felt altogether stupid as time stretched on and he got ever colder, sitting in his car with the engine turned off for fear of using up the battery with the heater. After all, he was stuck in a ditch and he was going to need help getting out of it eventually; to have a flat battery would be most embarrassing.

Douglas was steadily losing faith. Was he seriously here because Robert had been the only person around when that blasted teacup had split in half? Was he really so superstitious that he actually took that as a sign?

A few cars passed by and Douglas had to reassure them that he was in fact fine. He took his mobile phone out and assured them that he'd called a breakdown service. It was coming on for half past eight when he decided that might very well be the best course of action.

In fact, he had sunk his head against the steering wheel and given in entirely when he heard a distinct tap against the window.

He looked up slowly, hoping against hope to see the smiling eyes of his newly favourite farmer. Instead, he was greeted by the sight of the neon jacket of a police officer.

"Having a bit of trouble with the car, are we sir? Been sitting here for quite a while from what I hear. Want to tell me what you're up to?"

Douglas almost groaned. This was definitely not the way it was supposed to go. He forced a thin smile, knowing that now was not the time for smart answers.

"Step outside the car now please. Leave your keys where they are."

Douglas did exactly what he said. Where the police are concerned, it makes a great deal of sense not to argue.

So, it came to be, that when Robert Black ambled down the hill and vaulted over the gate into the lane where Douglas's car was ploughed into a ditch, yet again, he saw the man being given a stern talking to by the local policeman.

Ben rushed ahead, barking at the two of them and Robert saw Douglas freeze. He had been gesticulating frantically, as he tried to explain that no, he wasn't intoxicated and yes, it probably was incredibly irresponsible driving, but no, he wasn't trying to kill himself and yes, he was fully clear of the road so 'causing an obstruction' wasn't really all that accurate, was it? Did it really matter if he chose to park a little strangely?

But as soon as Douglas saw Robert's face smiling at him over the shoulder of the local Bobby, his words suddenly stopped working.

"You got something against that ditch, Douglas?"

He shrugged a little, feeling remarkably stupid now he realised how obvious it might be that he had in fact driven for three hours and purposefully re-crashed his car on the off chance that he would bump into this man again.

The policeman looked back at Robert and suddenly things seemed to shift to a less serious state of affairs.

"Know him do you?"

The farmer nodded, eyes still fixed to the antiques dealer who seemed to be shivering and turning faintly blue around the edges.

"I reckon he's a friend of mine."

The policeman nodded and Douglas let out a relieved breath as his rather official-looking notebook snapped shut.

"You make sure he moves this car Mr Black. He can't be sitting out here all day."

By the time the constable returned to his own vehicle, Robert was grinning at him rather infuriatingly.

"Just passing by?"

Douglas hitched his chin a little higher and tried to swallow down his matching smile.

"Happened to be in the area."

And so it came to be that Douglas Stanton's Great Aunt's teacup led him towards the kind of life he'd always wanted, in every single way.

It wasn't that from the point of the teacup breaking, the events in his life ceased to be significant, it was more that the major ones were dealt with. Ben, the ever obedient collie-cross, took on responsibility for Douglas's fate as well as Robert's, as soon as he realised that his master had no plans to ever let him go.

Ben had reached that realisation approximately thirty minutes after the pair left Douglas's car stranded in the ditch. It all became very clear to him on the way home to fetch a tow rope. His master's attempt to show the stranger the view across one of the fields from the top of a stile, turned into a kiss that was a little too breathless, really, for such an exposed situation at such a very early hour in the morning, in his humble, canine opinion.

Douglas Stanton disagreed entirely, and as Robert Black seemed to be having a little trouble removing his tongue from his mouth and his hands from his back and chest, he rather liked to think the disagreement with Ben was mutual. It was exactly the right kind of kiss after a total of nine hours driving, two car crashes, blue hands, a broken toe and a thoroughly mangled tea set.

Of course, it took the pair of them a great deal longer than that to reach the conclusion that those sparks between them signalled the start of a rather more permanent relationship.

Collies (even half-collies) are very bright you see, and dogs and teacups always know a lot more about what's going on that humans ever do, which turned out to be a very beneficial thing indeed for Douglas Stanton and Robert Black.

Great Aunt Sylvia's pink lustre teacup sits, glued together, in the centre of the highest shelf of the bookcase in their lounge, and if you're lucky, they might tell you everything they know about wise china.

Douglas likes to think he's something of an expert on the subject.