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'You bit him!' Black eyes fixed her with a stern glare as she stood at his desk. This was the very last thing Lazzaro needed to be dealing with today, and a petty row among the domestic staff was something he didn't usually have to.
'I didn't bite him,' Caitlyn snapped, and Lazzaro actually blinked. Her denial was not what he had been expectingespecially given the evidence. But her irritation, her indignation, even, told him that this five-minute problem that had landed on his desk at five p.m. on a hellish Friday was actually a rather more serious one. Jenna, his PA, had tearfully resigned on Wednesday, and her assistant was off with the flu that had swept through half his admin staff, which meant that today Lazzaro was dealing with what was usually expertly delegated. Only maybe it was just as well he was dealing with this particular scenario. It would seem that Caitlynhe glanced down at the file on his deskCaitlyn Bell, had a side to her story that he needed to hear.
Even if he really didn't want to.
'It was just a little nip.' China-blue eyes held hiseyes that were familiar somehow eyes that were just as blue as Roxanne's.
Where the hell had that thought come from?
This woman was nothing like Roxanne.
Caitlyn was as blonde as Roxanne was dark, and the woman who stood before him was petite whereas Roxanne was curvaceous, but those eyes A tiny swallow was the only evidence of his inner turmoilhe was angry with himself that even after all this time the memories, the pain, could still wash over him at the most unexpected of times.
'It's not as if I sank my teeth in.'
Lazzaro dragged his mind backto the conversation, grateful to escape his own thoughts, and it was quite hard not to smile at her description, quite hard not to compare it to Malvolio'swho had roared and ranted so loudly, his hand wrapped in a handkerchief, as if it was about to fall off. He hadn't known what to expect when he'd called her to his office. He was the last person who would normally deal with one of the hotel's maids, and when he did they were usually cowering in the chair. But not this one.
She'd declined his offer to sit, and was instead standing at his deskjangling with nerves, perhaps, but curiously strong. Long blonde hair that was presumably usually neatly tied back was tumbling out of its hair-tie after the incident, her arms were folded across her chest, and the blue eyes were glassy from her trying not to cry. She kept sniffing in the effort not to, and somehow, even if she was tiny, even if she was clearly shaken, somehow she was incredibly together tooher rosebud mouth pursed and defiant as she refused to relent.
'I need more information.'
'I really don't see what all the fuss is about.'
'One of my staff members has been bitten by another'
'Not just any one of your staff members '
This time he deliberately didn't blink. He held his expression in absolute check as she interrupted, and, though few usually dared, he let the fact go as Caitlyn Bell got straight to the rather awkward point.
'Malvolio is, I believe, your brother-in-law.'
He gave a terse noda nod that was actually respectful, acknowledging what she had to say even while quickly disregarding it. 'The fact Malvolio is my brother-in-law has no bearing in this matternone whatsoever. Now, I want to hear exactly what happened.'
'As Malvolio said, we were discussing a promotion he tripped and, like a reflex action, he put out his hands to save himself'
'Caitlyn' Rather more usually, it was Lazzaro interrupting now, but unusually someone overrode him someone's voice got a touch louder and more insistent as Caitlyn spoke over him.
'Andlike a reflex actionI bit him.' She gave a tight smile. 'Or rather, I gave him a little nip.'
'I want the truth.'
'You just got it.'
'Caitlyn, you are one of my staff '
'Not any more.' She shook her head. 'I just resigned.'
'No.' He wasn't having ithe saw just a flash of tears in those stunning blue eyes, and loathed Malvolio for causing them. 'You do not have to lose your job over this '
'I was already leaving. That's why I was having a discussion with Malvolio in the first place. I've got an interview next weeka second interview, actuallyfor a PR position with the Mancini chain of hotels.'
'A PR position?' Lazzaro frowned. Alberto Mancini was both his friend and his rival. Both had hotels all over the world, both had formidable reputations, and both were choosy with their staffand a chambermaid, no matter how well presented, wouldn't cut it in PR. 'You are a chambermaid. How can you have an interview for a PR?'
'I've been working as a maid while studying.'
'Hospitality and tourism '
He was only half listeningthat jolt of recognition he had experienced when he saw her was explained now. That was where he knew her from. She'd been on the desk funny that he could remember, but he didand there had been a wedding The Danton wedding that was it
'You did work experience here while you were studying?' Lazzaro checked. 'A couple of years ago?'
'That's right ' Caitlyn blinked, stunned that he remembered, wondering what he remembered. 'Just for a few days. I filled in an application form at the time, and I've been working as a maid while I've been studying ever since.'
He ran a hand over his forehead and trailed it down over his cheek, fingering for just a second the livid scar that ran the length of it.And for the second time in as many moments, Lazzaro came up with another logical explanation as to why this particular woman's face remained in his memory.
The weekend before it had happened.
The weekend before, when life had been so much easier.
When laughing had come so much more readily.
He'd kissed thousands of women he couldn't recall. Funny that he remembered one that he hadn't.
'Why haven't you applied for a position heregiven your history with the place?'
It was a perfectly reasonable question, one that her family and colleagues regularly asked, but one she simply couldn't answerand especially not to Lazzaro.
How could she tell him that for more than two years he'd been on her mind, that the king-size crush that had hit her that nightdespite her busy life, despite dancing and fun and boyfriendsstill hadn't faded?
That she really needed to get a life.
One away from Lazzaro Ranaldi and the stupid torch she carried for him.
Maybe if his brother hadn't died maybe if she hadn't started work as a chambermaid maybe if he hadn't been linked with Roxanne and it hadn't been on every news bulletin and in every paper or magazine Caitlyn had opened then, after that initial meeting, she'd have moved quickly on, forgotten the feel of his eyes on hers, forgotten the thrill in her stomach as that dark, ruthless face had been softened by a rare smile. Only in the days after that meeting she'd seen the pain in those closed features screaming from the newspapers, had winced at the scurrilous gossip that had ensued, the blistering row between brothers that had preceded Luca Ranaldi's sudden and tragic death. But still working in the hotelinstead of moving onshe had caught her breath whenever she'd gleaned an occasional glimpse of him striding through the hotel, blushing in her maid's uniform asnaturallyhe didn't deign to give her a glance. Though Caitlyn did. That perfect face, marred since that tragic day by a livid scar along his cheek, with lines now fanning his dark eyes and his mouth permanently set on grim. She could see the tension he carried in his shoulders, and wanted somehow for him to smile again.
Just the way he once had.
She hadn't spoken to him since that nightnot even once. And thank goodness for that, Caitlyn realised, because despite more than two years between drinks, so to speak, still he absolutely moved her. Despite the angry scar on his cheek, despite the closed, much more guarded expression he wore now, despite the pain in his eyesstill he was absolutely beautiful.
'I need a bit more variety ' Caitlyn answered truthfullybecause she did. She needed to sample a world that didn't have his name on every sheet of paper, needed to check her bank balance and not see 'Ranaldi', needed to just get over himfor good.
'You'll find nowhere better than right here.'
'You're probably right 'Caitlyn's face twisted slightly at the unwitting irony of his statement. 'But I really think it's time for a changeso you see today really doesn't matter. I was leaving soon anyway.'
'But it does matter, Caitlyn. You have worked for this hotel for two years and one month.' He gave a small swallow as her eyes narrowed, and he glanced again at her file, as if he'd gleaned the information from there. Only he hadn'tthe date was indelibly etched on his mind, but she didn't need to know why
It had nothing to do with her.
'If anything untoward has happened, you have the same rights as any other staff member. Just because Malvolio is family '
'I hear your sister's having a baby ' She pulled a crumpled tissue out of her pocket and gave her nose a rather loud blow.
'What does that have to do with this?' Lazzaro's voice was completely even, his face impassive, but he had to stop himself from drumming his fingers on the desk actually had to remind himself to keep looking her in the eye as she voiced his very thoughts. How the hell would Antonia cope? She had just started to get her life back on track after Luca's death, the new baby was due in just a few days, there was his niece, Marianna, just four years old what the hell had Malvolio been thinking?
'It has everything to do with this!' Caitlyn gulped. 'Look, I'm fineI really amand I don't want any fuss. I just want to get my things and leave.'
And, though it must surely be the last thing she wanted after the day's events, all he wanted to do was to walk around the desk and put his arms around her, this little spitfire who had marched into his office on his command and was about to walk out against it. And, yes, technically it would be so much easier to let her go. But it would be wrong, so very wrong, if he did.
'Caitlynlet's just talk about this. It can be dealt with you really do not have to leave.'
'Oh, but I think I do,' she countered. 'As I said, I've got the Mancini interview I can muddle through till then. Though ' Her voice faded, her head shaking at the impossibility of explaining her problems to him.
'Probably not to me.'
She managed a wan smile, realising she had no choice but to tell him. 'I've been doing a lot of overtime for the last two months. A lot of overtime,' Caitlyn reiterated.
'I will ensure that you're paid.'
'It's just that ' Caitlyn took a deep breath. 'I'm applying for a mortgage, and I need three months of payslips to show my earnings.'She scuffed the carpet with her foot. 'I told the bank it was my regular wage.'
'Without overtime?' Lazzaro checked. 'But wouldn't that show up on your payslip?'
'Quite!' Caitlyn blushed.
'So you lied to the bank?'
'Not lied exactly.' Caitlyn gulped. 'Malvolio said it ' She watched his eyes narrow, realised he must be thinking there was something more to their working relationship. There truly wasn't. She had asked and he had agreedit was as simple as that. 'Oh, it doesn't matter.' Caitlyn shrugged. 'I need three payslips anyway.'
'I don't want to.' She stood firm. 'I'd rather not put Malvolio down as a reference. I know he deals with the domestic staff, and I know he usually would be the one, but I '
'You can put meI can assure you I have more influence with Mancini than Malvolio does, and I will ensure it is extremely favourable.'
'How?' Caitlyn frowned. 'How can you write my reference when you don't know anything about me?'
'Oh, but I think I do.' Her words, only spoken through his lips now. He stared over at herlittle, but strong and, unlike his brother-in-law, unlike the father of the baby, this stranger actually gave a damn about the woman who was carrying his child.
'I will get the forms and have your pay made up. I will do it on Mondaythat way, if you change your mind over the weekend'
'Could you get the forms now, please?' She wasn't looking at him now, instead staring out of his vast windows somewhere over his shoulder at the Melbourne city skyline. 'I won't be changing my mind.'
'Just think about it.'
'I'd like the forms now.'
This time she didn't add please.
This time Lazzaro knew there was no persuading her otherwise.
Storming through the Admin corridors, Lazzaro caught everyone by surprise. Admin staff with bags over their shoulders, hoping to slope off a little early, suddenly sat back down and started tapping at blank screens; the raucous laughter coming from the boardroom that signalled end-of-week drinks that Lazzaro supplied for his team, which should start at five but in fact seemed to start around lunchtime, snapped off as if the power had been pulled as he stormed into rather unfamiliar territory. His suite was on the top floor, and he had a private lift that absolutely bypassed the usually well-oiled engines of Admin.
But come five p.m. on Friday, the wheels fell off somewhat!
'He's gone!' Audrey Miller, Malvolio's assistant, gave an anxious smile. 'He had to dash offAntonia rang and said she was having some cramps '
'Antonia's in labour?'
'I'm not sure.' Audrey gulped. 'But the staff got a bit excited, as you can see '
There wasn't a hope in hell of getting the termination formslet alone a final cheque cut.
He'd deal with the lot of them on Monday.
Right now, his sister could be in labour.
His brother-in-law by her side.
The same brother-in-law who had forced Caitlyn Bell's resignation for all the wrong reasons.