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'I don't understand,' Faith said, fingers gripping the fabric of her uniform too tightly. The body-hugging grey pencil skirt didn't have a lot of give, but she needed something solid and real in her hands. Something that definitely existed. Unlike the plane that was supposed to be taking her and her latest tour group back to London. 'How can there not be a plane?'
The airport official had the air of a man who'd had this conversation far more times than he'd like today, and in more languages than he was really comfortable with. It was in no way reassuring. 'There is no plane, signorina, because there is no company any longer. It's been declared bankrupt. All customers of the Roman Holiday Tour Company are being asked to contact their insurance companies and-'
'But I'm not a customer!' Faith interrupted, her patience exhausted. She'd been in the airport for three hours now, and she really needed a cup of coffee. Or an explanation for what the hell had happened to trash her immediate future overnight. 'I'm an employee. I'm the tour guide.'
The official's gaze turned pitying. Faith guessed that meant she wasn't likely to get paid this month. Or ever. Great. Just when her bank account could really have done with the help. 'Then I suggest you call your employer. If you are able to find him.'
Oh, that really didn't sound good.
Turning away, Faith gave what she hoped was a reassuring smile in the direction of the huddle of tourists waiting for her to report back on their journey home. Holding up her index finger in the universal 'just one minute' gesture, she fished in her capacious bag for her phone. Time to find out what the hell was going on.
'Marco?' she asked, the moment the phone stopped ringing. 'What the hell-'
There was a click on the other end of the line. Thank you for calling the Roman Holiday Tour Company! There is no one available to take your call right now
Her own voice on the voicemail message.
Faith hung up.
Around her, Leonardo da Vinci Airport buzzed with life. The sounds of crackly announcements and suitcase wheels on smooth flooring. The chatter of excited holiday-goers. The smell of fast food and strong coffee. The twelve British tourists standing around their suitcases, looking at her hopefully.
Faith took a deep breath, and approached. 'Okay, guys, here's the situation. I'll be honest, it's not great, but I'm still here and I will help you sort everything out, okay?' Maybe she wasn't getting paid any more, and maybe her boss had disappeared off the face of the earth, but she'd spent the last two weeks showing these people the sights and sounds of Italy. They trusted her. She owed it to them to at least make sure they got home safely. Maybe, that way, their memories of this holiday wouldn't just be of a total disaster.
No one actually relaxed at her words, but at least they looked slightly less terrified, which Faith figured was the best she could hope for, given the circumstances. Now for the hard bit.
'So, let's start at the top. Does everybody have travel insurance?'
It took a full two and a half hours, four cups of coffee, twenty phone calls, and plenty of sweet-talking, but eventually Faith had everyone either rebooked on other flights or safely ensconced in a hotel room until their insurance could organise their return home.
Everyone, that was, except for her.
Dropping down to sit on one of the airport benches, ignoring the guy asleep with his head on his backpack next to her, Faith pulled out her phone and tried Marco's number again.
Thank you for calling the Roman Holiday Tour Company! There is no one available to take your call right now.
She jabbed the end call button, dropped her phone into her lap, and closed her eyes. Okay, so, time to review the situation. Where was she?
She was in Rome! Centre of history, romance and really great pizza. She knew her way around, she had, ooh, twenty euros in her purse, she.. was unemployed, homeless and stuck.
Faith sighed, and opened her eyes again, looking around the busy terminal. Everybody there seemed to know exactly where they were going, and how they were going to get there. She didn't even know where she was going to sleep tonight.
She could call Antonio, she supposed. Except for the part where she really, really couldn't. Ex-boyfriends weren't generally inclined to be hugely helpful when her life fell apart, she'd learnt the hard way, and the one she'd left in a fit of anger only two weeks earlier would probably throw her out on her ear. Or worse.
And since everyone else she knew in Rome was either part of Antonio's ridiculously extended family or related to her missing employer, or both, that pretty much exhausted the local options.
Which left her with home. She should be back in London by now, ready to pick up her next group and embark on a tour of the Italian lakes. She guessed that was off, too. She'd barely seen more of the homeland than the cheapest airport hotel at Heathrow since she left Britain a year and a half ago, and even if she hadn't cut all ties with the friends she'd had before that, how could she just call up and say, Hey, I'm kinda stranded. Want to buy me a plane ticket?
No, the only people anyone could do that to were family. And she really didn't want to have to call them, either.
She had no doubt that dear old Mum and Dad, the Lord and Lady Fowlmere, would welcome her back into the bosom of the family in no time. After all, the publicity of the wild child heiress returned to the Fowlmere estate would make great copy, and her father always loved anything that made him look good in the press.
Faith had left home three years ago, ready to be herself for once, not an aristocratic relic to be trotted out for charity galas and other occasions, or a standing joke in the society pages. Going home now would undo all that hard work. Not to mention bring up the reasons she'd had to leave in the first place.
But it didn't look like she had an awful lot of choice.
Rubbing a hand across her forehead, Faith straightened her white blouse, then ripped off the hideous orange and red necktie that Marco insisted on his guides wearing and shoved it in her bag. It meant that the neckline of her blouse was a little more revealing than was entirely appropriate, but she didn't care. If she was going to have to call her family, she needed a drink first. And perhaps flashing a little cleavage as she walked into the airport bar would mean that she didn't have to waste any of her precious twenty euros buying it herself.
'Explain to me again how this happened.' Lord Dominic Beresford looked at the icy-cold bottle of Italian beer sitting on the bar in front of him with longing. He'd spent all day in meetings, worked in the cab all the way to the airport, and was just ready to switch off and relax before his late-night flight back to London, when Kevin, the Temp from Hell, called.
Dominic's beer would have to wait until he'd fixed whatever Kevin had screwed up now.
On the other end of the phone line, he could hear Kevin frantically turning pages in one of the many files Dominic was sure he had stacked on his desk. Stupid Shelley and her stupid maternity leave anyway. Wasn't keeping him sane a higher calling than a baby?
Dominic swept a finger down the beads of water on the neck of his beer bottle. Even he had to admit, probably not.
'Um, best I can tell, sir, your secretary booked in the tour guide with your usual company some months ago. And then ' Kevin trailed off nervously.
And then, Dominic filled in mentally, the owner of that usual company, Lady Katarina Forrester, also known at the time as his fiancée, had been caught on camera in a rather compromising position, leading to a media storm that had threatened his family's reputation.
So he'd called off the engagement. And in retaliation she'd cancelled their professional relationship, too.
Which left him with six American businessmen and -women flying into London tonight, expecting entertainment and tourism to go with their meetings. And probably, now he thought about it, hotel rooms, too. Kat had always taken care of the accommodation for his business guests.
The fact that this was almost entirely his own fault for getting involved with a business contact in the first place didn't make Dominic want that beer any less. He should have known better.
'I think I can remember what happened next,' he told Kevin drily. 'But I'm more interested in what happens now. Here's what I need you to do. First-'
'Um ' Kevin said, the way he always did when he was about to ruin Dominic's day. Surely Shelley didn't need a full year off with the baby. What if she didn't come back at all?
'What?' Dominic bit out.
'The thing is, it's nearly eight o'clock, sir. I'm supposed to finish work at five-thirty.' Kevin sounded more whiny than apologetic about the fact. How had Shelley ever thought he'd be a fitting replacement for her? Unless her mothering instinct had kicked in early. Kevin certainly needed taking care of.
'Add the hours onto your time sheet,' Dominic said, attempting reason. 'I'll make sure you're compensated for your time.'
'Thank you, sir. Only it's not just that. I've got a commitment tonight I can't break.'
'A date?' Dominic tried to imagine the lanky, spotty Kevin with an actual woman, and failed.
'No!' The squeak in Kevin's voice suggested he had similar problems with the idea. 'Just a group I belong to. It's an important meeting.'
The thing with temps, Dominic had found, was you couldn't just threaten them with the sack. They always had something new to move onto, and no incentive to stay.
And, it was worth remembering, Kevin had screwed up almost every simple job Dominic had asked him to do in the last week. Sometimes, if you wanted a job done properly
'Fine. Go. I'll fix it.'
The scrambling on the other end of the line suggested Kevin was already halfway out of the door. 'Yes, sir. Thank you.' He hung up.
Dominic gave the beer another wistful look. And then he called Shelley.
The wailing child in the background wasn't a good sign. 'Dominic, I am on maternity leave. I do not work for you right now.'
'I know that. But-'
'Are you sure? Because this is the fifth time you've called me this week.'
'In my defence, you weren't supposed to go on maternity leave for another two weeks.'
'I am very sorry that my son arrived early and disrupted your busy schedule.' She didn't sound very sorry, Dominic thought. She sounded sarcastic. 'Now, what do you want? And quickly.'
'The Americans. Kat cancelled all our bookings and-'
'Told you not to sleep with her.'
'And I need to find them somewhere to stay and someone to look after them while they're in London.'
'Yes,' Shelley said. 'You do.'
'Can you help?' He hated begging. Hated admitting he needed the assistance. But Shelley had been with him for five years. She knew how he worked, what he needed. She was part of the company.
Or she had been, until she left him.
She obviously still had more loyalty than Kevin, though. Sighing, she said, 'I'll check my contacts and text you some hotel names and tour companies you can try. But you'll have to wait until I've got Micah back off to sleep.' 'Thank you.'
'And this is the last time, Dominic. You're going to have to learn to work with Kevin.'
'I could just hire someone else,' Dominic mused. The thought of a whole year with Kevin was untenable.
'Fine. Whatever. I don't care. Just stop calling me!' Shelley hung up.
Placing his phone on the bar, Dominic looked at the bottle of beer. How long did it take to get a child off to sleep, anyway? He might as well have a drink while he was waiting. But, as he reached for the bottle, a woman boosted herself up onto the stool next to him and smiled.
Raising the bottle to his lips, Dominic took in the low-cut blouse, too-tight skirt and wild dark hair framing large hazel eyes. The smile on her wide lips was knowing, and he wondered if she'd recognised him. What she wanted from him. A drink. A night. A story to sell. She wouldn't be the first, whatever it was.
And whatever it was, she wouldn't get it. He'd made a mistake, letting Kat close enough to damage his reputation. It wasn't one he intended to make again-certainly not for one night with a pretty girl with an agenda.
But, to his surprise, the first words she said were, 'Sounds like you have a problem, my friend. And I think I can help you out.'
It wasn't the way she normally got work, but there was a lot to be said for serendipity, Faith decided. Walking into an airport bar, jobless and broke, and hearing a guy talk about how he needed a London tour guide and hotel rooms? That was an opportunity that was meant to be.
'And how, exactly, do you intend to do that?' the guy asked. He didn't look quite as convinced by coincidence as she was.
Faith held out a hand. 'I'm Faith. I'm a tour guide. I know London even better than I know Italy and Rome, and I've been running tours here for a year and a half. And it just so happens that I've finished one tour today, and I have a break before my next one.' She didn't mention the slight hiccup in her heartbeat at the idea of going home to London. Probably it would be fine. She could be in and out in a week or so, heading off on a plane to sunnier, less panic-inducing climes.
Besides, at this point, it wasn't as if she had a lot of other options.
'Dominic,' the guy said, taking her hand. He looked familiar, she realised. But then, after a while, all men in grey suits looked the same, didn't they? Maybe not quite as attractive as this one, though. His gaze was cool and evaluating. The highend suit said 'successful businessman', the loosened tie said 'workaholic' and the beer said 'long day'. She could work with all of those. 'And how, exactly, do you know I need a tour guide?'
'I eavesdropped.' Faith shrugged, then realised the move strained her struggling blouse a little more than was wise in a professional environment. Maybe she should have left the necktie on.
'Not exactly the key quality I look for in an employee.' He frowned down at her cleavage with more distaste than she was used to seeing in a man.
'Really?' Faith asked. 'Someone who listens even when they're not required to and anticipates your needs? I've always found that rather useful.'