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She looked as if the world had ended, hunched over an empty coffee cup, staring out of the plate-glass window but not seeing anything.
Gio couldn't leave her sitting there in such obvious misery. So even though he should've locked up ten minutes ago, he did exactly what his father would've done. He made a cappuccino and slid it on to the table in front of her. 'Here,' he said softly.
She looked up, her eyes widening in surprise. 'I ' She'd obviously been about to protest that she hadn't ordered the coffee. But then she smiled ruefully and cupped both hands round the mug, clearly taking comfort from its warmth. 'Thanks.'
'No problem.' He handed her a chocolate dipper. 'You look as if you need this.'
'I do,'she admitted. 'Thanks. I appreciate this.'She rummaged in her handbag for her purse. 'How much do I owe you?'
He waved a dismissive hand. 'Nothing.'
She frowned. 'Won't you get into trouble with your boss?'
'Doubt it.'He smiled. 'Anyway, you're a regular, so call it a refill.'
Those beautiful blue eyesthe same blue as the sky on a summer evening, he saw, now that he was this close to hernarrowed slightly. 'Regular?'
He shrugged. 'On Wednesday mornings, you order a cappuccino and an almond croissant to go at ten past nine.'
The suspicion on her face morphed into nervousness. 'How do you know that?'
Oh, lord. Obviously she thought he was some kind of weirdothat he'd been watching her or stalking her. He shouldn't have mentioned the time. 'Work here long enough and you get to know the customers,' he said lightly, hoping it reassured her. 'I'm out of croissants or I would've brought you onehence the chocolate.' He spread hishands. 'Because that's what women need when things get tough, right? Or so my sisters always tell me.'
'Right. And thank you.' She looked very close to tears.
'Want to talk about it?'
She looked around, as if suddenly realising she was the only customer. 'Oh, lord. Sorry. I'm holding you up.'
'Not at all. Though would you mind if I put up the closed sign and put the bolt on the door, so I don't get a sudden rush and end up staying open a lot later than usual?'
Fran thought about it. He'd actually asked her first, to make sure she didn't feel threatened. And a man who'd brought her a coffee and a chocolate dipper couldn't be all bad, could he? OK, so he knew her Wednesday-morning orderbut, as he'd said, you got to know your regulars in business. Just as she did: she recognised voices on the phone and knew even before they asked which ones would be asking for a last-minute panic job and which ones would be booking slots for weeks ahead.
'Sure,' she said.
He bolted the door, turned the sign over to read 'Closed' from the outside, turned off one of the banks of lights, and came to sit opposite her. 'Gio Mazetti,' he said, holding out his hand.
She took it, and was surprised at the sudden tingle in her fingertips when her skin touched his. 'Fran Marsden. And thank you for the coffee, Joe.'
'Gio,' he corrected with a smile.
Now she was listening properly, she heard it. The soft G, the I and O sliding together almost after a pause.
'Short for Giovanni,' he added helpfully.
And then the penny dropped. Of course he wouldn't get into trouble for making her a coffee for no charge. Because the café was called Giovanni's. 'You own the place.'
He lifted one shoulder. 'It's a family concernbut, yeah, I'm in charge.'
'I, um ' She shifted in her seat, embarrassed at her naïvety. 'Sorry.'
He laughed. 'Don't apologise. I'm glad I come across as one of the baristasthere's nothing worse than having the boss supposedly doing a shift and just throwing his weight around instead of doing something useful.'
He had a nice laugh. Good teeth, even and whiteno fillings, either, she noticed. A guy who took care of small details. But he also didn't look like the type who went in for cosmetic dentistry. She'd put money on him not going to the gym, eithershe had a feeling that Gio Mazetti was in perfect shape from hard work, not from pumping iron. He was good looking, but far from being vain about it.
'So. Want to tell me about it?' When she said nothing, he added softly, 'My nonnamy Italian grandmotheralways says that a problem shared is a problem halved.'
Homespun wisdom. Just the sort of thing her mother would come out with.
Fran's smile faded before it had had a chance to start. She was going to have to call her parents tonight and admit to them that she was a failure. Not only was she the only one of their children not to get a degree, now she was the only one who didn't have a decent job. And it went right with the territory of not being their real child, anywaythe only one of the four Marsden children who was adopted.
She sighed. 'I lost my job today.'
'I'm sorry. That's tough.'
It wasn't his fault. And he was rightit felt good to unburden herself. Lose some of the sick feeling of failure. 'My boss decided he wanted a new challenge, so he sold the business to go travelling for a year and to work out what he wanted to do with his life.'
She shrugged. 'A competitor bought the business. And you really don't need two office managers when you're merging two companies and need to cut your running costs. So one of them has to be made redundant.'
'So you're an office manager?'
'Was.' She pulled a face. 'Ah, ignore me. I'm whining.' She waved a dismissive hand. 'I'll find something else. It's just that I really loved my joband there aren't that many opportunities in the market because there aren't many voiceover studios around.'
He looked interested. 'What does a voiceover studio do?'
'Record jingles for radio stations, produce radio advertising and audio books, and do audio special effectsyou know, like horses' hooves or fireworks going off on bonfire night, that kind of thing.'
'So you get all the famous actors and actresses coming in?' She smiled. 'They're not always household namesbut, yeah, I've booked a few in my time.'
'You were in charge of booking?'
'I didn't make the final decisions on who we booked for each job,' Fran said, 'but I made suggestions and I did the organising. I made sure everyone knew what they were supposed to be doing and when.' And she'd fitted in, right smack in the middle of things. She'd belonged. And that, to her, had been way more important than her admittedly good salary. 'We had a sales guy handling the sales side of things, a sound manager to do the technical stuff, and my boss did the copywriting and most of the schmoozing.'She bit her lip. 'I'm going to miss it. Horribly. But, hey, life moves on. I'll get over it. Find something else.' She glanced at her watch. 'Sorry. I'm making you really late.'
Gio shook his head. 'It's really not a problem, Fran. My evening's my own. Though I do need to clean the machines so they're ready for tomorrow morningso, if you don't mind me sorting that out while we're talking, come and sit by the bar.'
Fran looked at him properly for the first time. Gio Mazetti would get a definite ten on the scale of gorgeousness. Olive skin, dark straight hair that flopped across his forehead and which he'd obviously pushed back with one hand at various times during the day because it stuck up in places, a sensual mouthand the most stunning eyes. With his colouring and his Italian name, she'd expected them to be dark brown. Instead, they were blue.
A mesmerising deep, almost midnight, blue.
She followed him to the bar. 'So when do you finish?' he asked.
That was what had knocked her for six. 'It all happened today and I cleared my desk this afternoon. I'm on five months' gardening leave, as of now,' she said.
'Five months is pretty generous,' he commented, starting to strip down the coffee machine.
'I worked at the studio for five years, so I guess the terms are one month for every year I spent there,' she explained. 'But the terms of my leave also mean that I can't contact any of my former clients during those five months.'
'So if you go to a competitor, you can't take your contacts with you.'
He'd hit the nail right on the head, and Fran's spirits took another nosedive. 'In five months' time, my contacts will be out of date, because things change so quickly in advertising and radio and publishing. And that's assuming I can get another job in a voiceover studioas I said, it's not that huge an industry, so even in London there aren't many openings.' She shrugged. 'On the plus side, my skills are transferable. I dunno. Maybe I'll try some of the advertising agencies, see if I can work on the client management side. If that doesn't break the terms of my gardening leave, that is.'
'Tell me about what your job involved,' Gio said. 'I kept the schedule for the studios so I knew which slots were free if we were doing a rush job, and which actor was working on which job. I used to talk to the radio stations and audio publishers to sort out timescales, and to the agencies so we had the right voice for the right job. Plus a bit of PA work for the boss and keeping up to date with invoicing and payments.'
'Hmm.' He finished cleaning the machines and leaned on the counter opposite her. 'So you're good at organisation and you're used to keeping track of lots of different projects at the same time, and dealing with lots of different people at lots of different levels.'
That pretty much summed it up. And there was no point in false modesty: she might as well get used to stating what her skills were. She needed the practice for interviews. 'Yes.'
'And you understand finances.'
There was a difference between being honest and sexing it up. She wasn't going to claim to be an accountancy whiz-kid. 'I can do basic book-keeping and set up spreadsheets and produce graphs,' she said.
'Can you read a P and L statement?'
'Profit and loss? UmI might need to ask some questions, but, yes, I think so.'
'And you understand how profit margins work, the difference between fixed and variable costs?'
He smiled. 'Excellent. In that case, I might have a proposition for you.'
'What sort of proposition?'
'A business proposition.'
Well, of courseit wouldn't be anything else, would it? Some of the actors at the studio had flirted mildly with her, but Fran knew from experience that men basically saw her as a colleague or a friend, not as dating material. She was the one they came to asking for help to woo the girl of their dreams, rather than being the girl who'd caught their eye in the first place. And she was fine with that. Right now her life was complicated enough, without adding in all the muddle of a romantic entanglement.
'It's something that might solve a problem for both of us,' he added mysteriously. 'Have dinner with me tonight and I'll explain.'
Dinner? Didn't he have a wife and family waiting for him at home?
The question must have been written over her face, because his smile broadened. 'Before you ask, I'm single. My nonna says that no girl in her right mind will sit around waiting for a work-aholic to notice her existence. She also says it's time I settled down, before I hit thirty and I'm on the shelf.' He laughed. 'I've seriously been considering telling her I'm gay.'
A frisson of disappointment slid down Fran's spine. Where a gorgeous man was concerned, there was always a rule of three: he'd been snapped up at an early age, he was a rat, or he was gay.
'But apart from the fact I'm not'
Oh. Not attached and not gay. So did that put him into the rat category?
'she wouldn't believe me anyway. Because I'm a hopeless liar,' he added with a rueful smile.
So maybe the rule of three didn't apply in this case. Gio might just be the exception that proved the rule.
He smiled at her. 'Don't look so worried. What I'm trying to say is that you're safe with me. I'm not trying to hit on you.'
Which was true, Gio thoughtup to a point. He'd noticed Fran Marsden weeks ago. There was something about her: she was quiet, maybe even a little shy, but she always knew exactly what she wanted instead of dithering over the menu, always had the right money, and always had a smile for the barista who made her cappuccino, not taking the service for granted. Efficient and courteous. He liked that. So he'd made a point of working a morning shift in the Charlotte Street café on Wednesdays, when he knew she'd be in; even if he hadn't served her himself, seeing her put a sparkle into the middle of his week.
But he'd never intended to act on that attraction. He knew better than to mix business with pleasure, and he'd never overstep the boundaries with a customer.
Besides, Nonna was right. There was no point in asking her out because no woman would put up with the hours he worked. And it wasn't fair to suggest a relationship to someone who was just trying to pick up the pieces of her life after some bad news. Especially the way he was feeling right nowrestless, at the point where the chain of coffee shops had stopped being a challenge and started being a burden. Though he'd invested so much of his life in Giovanni's, he had no idea what he wanted to do instead.
No. That particular dream had crashed and burned. He wasn't going back.
But if the idea that had been spinning round in his head for the last few months worked out, he could help Fran pick up the pieces and maybe help stop his restlessness at the same time.
He knew he was acting on impulse, but he'd always been a good judge of character in the past. And he was pretty sure that Fran Marsden was just the kind of woman he needed to help him. 'I think this could be good for both of us,' he said. 'So, will you have dinner with me this evening? I happen to know the best pizzeria in London.'
'Pizza,' she said, the tiniest sparkle in her eyes.
He laughed. 'Well, what else would an Italian suggest for dinner?'
To his pleasure, the sparkle turned into a full-wattage twinkle. And, lord, she was lovely when she smiled properly. It lit her up from the inside, transforming her from average to beautiful.
'Grilled scamorza,' she said. 'Panna cotta. And dough balls with garlic butter.'
Oh, yes. A woman on his wavelength. One who actually enjoyed food instead of nibbling at a celery leaf and claiming she was too full to manage anything moreone who saw the pleasure in sharing a meal instead of the misery of counting calories. One who might just understand what he wanted to do. 'That,' he said, 'sounds pretty much perfect. So we have a deal? I'll feed you and you'll listen to what I have to say?'
She shook her head. 'I might not have a job right now, but I can still pay my way. We'll split the bill.'
Not a yes woman, either; he warmed to her even more. Fran was exactly what he was looking for. 'Deal,' he said. He still had a pile of paperwork to do, but he'd done the banking an hour before and the float would be fine in the safe. 'Let me lock up, and we'll go.'