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Her Italian Boss
By Lynne Graham
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Lynne Graham
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIt had been a hideous day at work.
On the way home, Poppy called into the corner shop and the first thing she noticed was that the big valentine card she had admired over a month earlier was still unsold. She couldn't understand why nobody had bought it for she loved its glorious overblown pink roses and simple sentimental verse. She wondered why all the cards her more fortunate friends received were joke ones with comic, cruel, or even crude messages.
On an impulse, Poppy lifted the card and decided to buy it. Why shouldn't she send a valentine card? True, nobody had ever sent her one, but that didn't mean that she couldn't use the card as a means of brightening someone else's day. As to the identity of that special, lucky someone, there was no doubt in her mind about who would receive the card ...
Poppy had fallen head over heels in love with Santino Aragone in her first week working at Aragone Systems. She was all too well aware that Santino was as out of her reach as the moon. Santino was a hugely successful entrepreneur, blessed by spectacular sleek, dark Italian looks, and he had a never-ending string of gorgeous women in his life. But in an emergency Santino Aragone could also be incredibly kind. On her first day at work, when she'd got her finger trapped in a door, Santino had taken her to the hospital himself. When he had fainted dead away at the sight of a needle, Poppy had known he was the man for her ... she had thought that was so sweet.
Starry-eyed over the idea that her small, anonymous gesture of a card might at least bring a brief smile to Santino Aragone's brooding dark features on what she knew would be a difficult day for him, she was unlocking the door of her bedsit before her thoughts roamed uneasily back to her own horrendous day at work.
Desmond, the slick new head of marketing, had asked her if she had been born stupid or perhaps she'd got that way with effort? Having spilt coffee on his keyboard, Poppy had cleaned it up without telling him and in the process somehow wiped his morning's work from his computer. Although she had made grovelling apologies, Desmond had still put in a complaint about her to Human Resources and she had been issued with a formal warning.
Her colleagues would have been surprised to learn that Poppy, famed for her laid-back nature, was even angrier with herself than Desmond had been. If she had not been so busy chatting, the coffee would never have been spilt. Time and time again, a lapse in concentration led to similar mistakes on her part. Sometimes she wondered if the problem had started when she was at school and her parents had, without ever meaning to, managed to undermine her every small triumph.
"I'm sure you've done your best," her mother would say with a slight grimace when she scanned Poppy's school reports. "We can't expect you to match Peter's results, can we?"
Her elder brother, Peter, had been born gifted and his achievements had set an impossible standard against which her more average abilities sank without trace. Punch-drunk with pride over their son's academic successes, her parents had always concentrated their energies on Peter. Poppy would have liked to go to university, too, but when she was fifteen, her parents had told her that, as further education was so expensive and Peter would still be completing his doctorate, she would have to leave school and train for a job instead. It had seemed to her then that there was no point in striving for better grades. But it had been a conviction that she had since lived to regret.
Now painfully conscious that she didn't have much in the way of academic qualifications and that she had been lucky to get a position in a slick city business, Poppy worked hard as a marketing assistant. She was willing, enthusiastic and popular with her colleagues, but employees who made foolish mistakes were frowned on at Aragone Systems. In addition, the warning she had received that day was her second in six months and if there was a third, she could be sacked. Ironically, it was not so much the fear of being fired that sent a chill down her taut spine, it was the terrifying knowledge that if she was fired she would never, ever set eyes on Santino Aragone again ...
"Is this someone's idea of a joke?" Santino Aragone demanded with incredulous bite when he opened the giant envelope two days later and found himself looking at the most naff of valentine cards awash with chintzy roses in improbable clashing pinks.
"I'm as surprised as you are." His PA, Craig Belston, thought with considerable amusement that no woman could have chosen a worse way of trying to impress his sophisticated employer. Or indeed a worse day or even year to make such a declaration.
The staff Christmas party had been postponed after the sudden death of Santino's father, Maximo, and rescheduled to take place as a Valentine's Day event this evening. As bad luck would have it, Santino was attending another funeral of an old schoolfriend that very afternoon. Furthermore, it might be a little-known fact but Santino loathed Valentine's Day in much the same way that Scrooge had loathed the festive season.
Lean, strong face grim, Santino opened the card. A faint whiff of an eerily familiar perfume made his nostrils flare and he frowned. Floral ... jasmine? An old-fashioned scent, not the type of fragrance worn by a stylish woman. But so taken aback was he by the candid message on the inside of the card that he forgot about the perfume.
"As always, I'm thinking of you and loving you today," ran the screed.
Had he become the unwitting target of some dreadful schoolgirl with a crush? Wincing at the very idea while he mentally ran through the very few teenage girls within his social circle, he made no demur when Craig took the liberty of turning the card round to peruse it for himself.
"Tinkerbell ..." Craig pronounced in a tone of raw disbelief.
"I beg your pardon?" Santino prompted drily.
"That dippy redhead in marketing. We call her Tinkerbell because she's always flying about and putting her feet in it noisily. Well, Poppy's certainly stuck her silly head above the parapet this time," the younger man remarked with an unpleasant smile.
"I'm certain she sent this card. That's her scent. She always wears it and guess who loves pink and flowers as well?"
Poppy Bishop, the marketing junior, hired six months ago by his late father in total defiance of HR's choice of candidate while Santino had been on vacation. Why? Maximo had felt sorry for her because she had confided that it was her first interview after fifty-odd job applications. Poppy with her shy but sunny smiles, explosive Titian corkscrew curls and her comical penchant for floral prints and insane diets. Even in a large staff, Poppy was hard to ignore and calamity did follow her around.
"Some women just live to embarrass themselves," Craig remarked thinly. "Shouldn't someone have a word with her about this? The cheek of her too ... a little nobody like her making up to the boss!"
Summoning up a recollection of how Poppy behaved in his vicinity, Santino decided she very probably was the culprit. He knew he made her nervous. Around him, she was more than usually clumsy, tongue-tied to the point of idiocy and enveloped in a continual hot blush. She also had a way of looking at him that suggested that with very little effort he might walk on water. Other women treated him to the same look but where they were concerned it was deliberate flattery, whereas Poppy's expressive face paraded her every thought like a banner. He was relieved that she had not signed the card. She would not have appreciated that her trade-mark perfume and love of flowers might be a giveaway and would undoubtedly cringe if she realised that she was even under suspicion. Instantly, Santino regretted allowing Craig to read the card.
"I doubt that Poppy Bishop sent it," Santino murmured in a bored tone of dismissal as he dropped the card straight into the bin. "She's just not the type. I imagine it's more likely to have come from some schoolgirl, possibly the daughter of one of my friends. Now, since we've had our entertainment for the day, could you get me the MD of Delsen Industries on the phone?"
Later that morning, Santino's attention wandered back to the bin where the card lay forlorn and rejected. A groan of exasperation escaped his wide, sensual mouth. What on earth had possessed her? His PA hated her guts and would do her a bad turn if he got the chance. Why? Craig was famous for hitting on the youngest, newest female employees, treating them to a one-night stand and then dumping them.
But when his PA had tried his routine on Poppy, she had turned him down and admitted that she had been told that he was the office romeo on her first day, a put-down that had hit Craig's ego right where it hurt. Craig would have been more humiliated, however, had he realised that Santino had been the one to issue that warning. He still didn't know why he had bothered. Maybe it was the fact that his father had warmed to the girl; maybe it was the sheer naivety he had seen in her blue pansy-coloured eyes ...
Excerpted from Her Italian Boss by Lynne Graham Copyright © 2003 by Lynne Graham
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.