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ANDREO PASCALI, cursing the day the admirable
Knox had left his employ, taking retirement to make her home with her recently widowed sister in Kent, impatiently lifted the final sheet of paper, scanned it in a nanosecond and even more impatiently tossed it aside.
"No details," he dismissed tersely, his wide sensual mouth tightening with annoyance, lancing a look of displeasure at his current lover.
Though current was on the verge of becoming past. Trisha was becoming far too demanding and clingy — definitely against his emphatically stated ground rules.
Only last evening he'd returned from the agency with the intention of wrestling with the problem of how to come up with an idea for a sensational TV commercial, one bearing the inimitable Pascali stamp of excellence and selling clout for something as deeply uninspiring as a brand of ready meals, only to find that Trisha had let herself in and was waiting for him with a wretched Chinese takeaway festering in the oven. She'd done that fluffing up thing with her hair, accompanying it with the usual pouty mouth bit — once sexily amusing but now utterly boring — and had told him, sounding deadly serious, "What you need, light of my life, is a wife. Then you wouldn't be facing these dreary interviews and wasting the time you say is so precious."
His scowl darkened. As a hint, it seriously raised his annoyance threshold. She knew darn well he didn't need or want a wife. He wanted an unobtrusive housekeeper and at this rate it didn't look as if he was going to get one!
"The last two girls seemed perfectly fine," he snapped. "Though, I grant you, the first applicant was a nightmare." Eighty if she was a day, even though her letter of application had given her age as fifty, dotty as they came. He'd had Trisha make her a cup of tea and had personally put her into a taxi. She'd given the address of a retirement home to the driver and waved maniacally as she'd been driven away.
"There was nothing wrong with the other two," he reiterated tightly. Vital energy, constrained for too long, had him on his feet, pacing the confines of his home office. "Good qualifications, excellent references," he reminded with a bite.
"Darling," Trisha soothed with a sycophantic smile. "Don't get cross. I offered my help and advice when you said you didn't do domestic stuff. And my advice is that both those girls wouldn't stay for longer than a few weeks. Reasonably bright, passably pretty, leave to get married in no time. You need a middle-aged home body. And there are no details because she didn't send a letter of application; she simply phoned yesterday afternoon and asked for an interview."
Had sounded bossy, too. Andreo wouldn't find bossiness in the least bit sexy. Whereas either of the previous two...
And having seen her when admitting her to Andreo's darling home, and again when seeing the third applicant out, she'd reached the conclusion that Mercy Howard would do very nicely. Twenty-two years old, so sadly not middle-aged, but plain as a house brick and decidedly, wholesomely dumpy — no competition. Beginning to feel on shaky ground herself, she didn't want the complications of round the clock competition. Andreo never gave a thought to marriage. Before the start of their relationship he'd stated that he didn't do long-term stuff. She'd gone along with that. Well, she'd have been a fool to throw a spanner in the works at that stage. Her sole aim was to make him change his mind, decide he wanted her as his wife, setting her up for a life of ease and giving her access to untold wealth.
No, the woman who didn't find Andreo Pascali's perfect bone structure, tall lean physique and dark charismatic Latin looks seriously lust-worthy — not to mention his wildly impressive bank account — was yet to be born. The Howard female wouldn't be any different, but darling Andreo wouldn't be remotely tempted to take any notice of her no doubt clumsy attempts to hit on him.
"You might as well see her since she's here," Trisha cooed, running her fingers through his midnight hair. "You never know, she could well be just what we're looking for."
Disliking the proprietorial 'we' bit and even more disliking the impression of being humoured, Andreo jerked his head away, stiffened his impressive shoulders and positioned himself behind his desk again, a massive frown bringing his brows down in two straight black bars. Trisha's time was definitely up. He'd have his PA select a suitably expensive piece of jewellery and deliver it to her apartment first thing in the morning accompanied by his standard note saying farewell and no regrets.
And, unless the fourth applicant was over eighty and completely doolally, the job was hers. He had important creative work to get stuck into.
The moment she'd found the address she was looking for, Mercy had felt horrible qualms. A converted warehouse in one of the trendiest Thames-side areas was hardly the right setting for a humble country bumpkin. How often had Carly teased, "Get street-wise, kid," when she'd confessed to being appalled, mystified or downright scared of the frenetic life of this great cosmopolitan city? Despite being in London for two years, she was still an old-fashioned country vicar's daughter at heart with old-fashioned values and a yearning for the much slower pace of life she'd been used to.
But she had determination on her side and, clutching her large shabby handbag, had marched up to the fine wooden door, pressing a bell. Startled by a voice issuing from some sort of discreet metal contraption, she had obeyed instructions and given her name and business.
Eventually the door had swung open as if by magic and she'd found herself walking into a huge vestibule, the ceiling of which soared three storeys high, with a staircase winding up and leading to balustraded floors. To be met by a big-haired blonde of such magnificent proportions, shown to full advantage by pink harem pants and a toning glittery, clingy top, that Mercy had immediately felt like a small fat grey mouse, her modest five-three seeming to diminish to a mere inch or two.
Consulting a clipboard, the blonde had announced, "You must be Ms Howard." A wide white smile followed a minute scrutiny of her less than flattering boxy grey suit, sensible shoes and unwieldy handbag. "I'm Signor Pascali's — " the coy arching of one artfully darkened brow, followed by a huskily stressed ' — friend." A meaningful simper, then, "He is interviewing at the moment, so if you'd like to take a seat I'm sure he won't keep you waiting for too long."
The leather and chrome seat she located beside a glass-topped table was surprisingly comfortable. But Mercy couldn't relax even though she planted her feet together and cradled her comfy old handbag on her lap. The qualms had begun first thing this morning when Carly had gleefully apprised her of the exact identity of her hoped-for future employer.
"I sat up half the night on the net researching the guy. Get this — he's a living legend and he's only thirty-one! He owns, directs and literally is the creative genius behind the Pascali Ad Agency. Worth billions in his own right, not counting a load of family dosh. His main home is here in London — presumably where you'll be working and living — plus he owns a villa near Amalfi and an apartment in Rome. Interested in modern art. No wife and kids, so there won't be much for you to do other than flick a duster over his Picassos and Hockneys!" Shrugging into the navy tailored suit jacket, the one with a discreet embroidered logo of the world-famous cosmetic company she worked for on the narrow lapel, the dark colour of the sleek fabric drawing attention to her enviably straight jaw-length ash-blonde bob, she blew Mercy a kiss. "Must dash before I'm late again. And the best of luck — and remember, you've got a beautiful smile, so use it a lot!"
Bleary-eyed from lack of sleep, having been up most of the night cleaning offices, which was increasingly the only type of work the domestic agency found for her because, according to one of her work-mates, she was always reliable, thorough and never ever called in sick, she had found it impossible to grab the customary two hours or so of rest, getting more and more het up about the coming interview.
Coming across the job vacancy as she'd browsed through an up-market magazine while waiting for a routine six-monthly dental check-up yesterday lunch-time, it had seemed that her guardian angel was working overtime on her behalf. A live-in housekeeper was required for an Andreo Pascali, the salary quoted large enough to make her eyes pop out of her head.
On that kind of money, no living expenses — and presumably she'd be fed as well as housed — she could do a huge amount to help her brother James through his medical training, far more than she was managing at the moment even though she scraped together every penny that wasn't needed for her share of the rent and food.
Hopelessly impractical where money matters were concerned, he'd feel utterly at sea if he finished his gruelling training — and already he was talking about eventually going on to take a higher degree in surgery — and woke up to the fact that he was saddled with a mountainous student debt.
Convinced that the job vacancy she'd happened across had been heaven-sent, she'd phoned and stated — well, more demanded, she recollected with a flush of discomfiture — that she needed an appointment for an interview. It had all seemed to fit so perfectly, given that only the day before Carly had dropped her bombshell.
The old school friend she'd shared the tiny flat with for the last two years was moving out, moving in with her boyfriend, marriage definitely on the cards.
She'd been genuinely happy for her, of course she had. How could she be otherwise when Carly had been so good to her? Two years ago, days after her twentieth birthday, she'd been at her wits' end, stricken with grief at the death of her remaining parent, not knowing how she would manage to help her brilliant brother through his long years of training and exist on her odd job earnings now that her mother's church pension had died with her.
Leaving school herself at sixteen on the death of her father, she'd agreed with her mother that it was her duty to earn something to put by for her much brighter younger brother's education. She'd taken any work she could find in the village where the family had moved from the vicarage to live in a small cottage owned by the church authorities which was a guaranteed home for their mother's lifetime.
Times had been hard but contented. She'd been planning to work full-time towards a qualification in catering and housecraft to open up a future of professional housekeeping or, more adventurously, starting up her own business catering for private dinner parties and weddings. That ambition had been put on hold but, even so, she had enjoyed the work she did find. Cleaning, tidying gardens, shopping for the housebound, dog-walking.
It had been Carly who'd stepped in at that worrisome time. She worked as a beautician in a swanky London store and had offered, "You can share with me. The flat's not much bigger than a shoe box but we'd manage. You could share the rent so you'd be doing me a favour. And there are loads of domestic agencies just crying out for recruits. I could fix up some interviews. Okay?"