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Everything was in place. A sleek computer sat on my desk, humming gently. A notebook and freshly sharpened pencil were squared up to one side of a high-tech phone, but otherwise the desk was empty, the way I like it. I can't bear clutter.
There was only one thing missing.
My new boss.
Phin Gibson was late, and I was cross. I can't bear unpunctuality either.
I had been there since eight-thirty. Wanting to make a good impression, I'd dressed carefully in my best grey checked suit, and my make-up was as subtle and professional as ever. Rattling over the keyboard, my nails had a perfect French manicure. I was only twenty-six, but anyone looking at me would know that I was the ultimate executive PA, cool, calm and capable.
I might have looked cool, but by half past ten I certainly wasn't feeling it. I was irritated with Phin, and wishing I had bought myself a doughnut earlier.
Now, I know I don't look like the kind of girl with a doughnut fetish, but I can't get through the morning without a sugar fix. It's something to do with my metabolism (well, that's my story and I'm sticking to it), and if I don't have something sweet by eleven o'clock I get scratchy and irritable.
OK, even more irritable.
Chocolate or biscuits will do at a pinch, but doughnuts are my thing, and there's a coffee bar just round the corner from Gibson & Grieve's head office which sells the lightest, jammiest, sugariest ones I've ever tasted.
I'd fallen into the habit of buying one with a cappuccino on my way into work, and waiting for a quiet moment to get my blood sugar level up later in the morning, but today I'd decided not to. I wasn't sure what sort of boss Phin Gibson would prove to be, and I didn't want to be caught unawares with a sugar moustache or jammy fingers on our first day working together. This job was a big opportunity for me, and I wanted to impress him with my professionalism.
But how could I do that if he wasn't there?
Exasperated, I went back to my e-mail to Ellie, my friend in Customer and Marketing.
No problem, Ellie. To be honest, I was glad of something to do. There's a limit to what you can do as a PA without a boss—who STILL hasn't appeared, by the way. You'd think he could be bothered to turn up on time on his first day in a new job, but apparently not. Am already wishing I was back in the Chief Executive's office. I have a nasty feeling Phin and I aren't going to get on, and unless
Sent: Monday, January 18, 09:52
Subject: THANK YOU!
Summer, you are star! Thank you SO much for putting those figures together for me—and on a Friday afternoon, too! You saved my life (again!!!!!).
Any sign of Phin Gibson yet??? Can't wait to hear if he's as gorgeous as he looks on telly!
'Well, well, well…Lex must know me better than I thought he did.'
The deep, amused voice broke across my exasperated typing and my head jerked up as I snatched my fingers back from the keyboard.
And there—at last!—was my new boss. Phinneas Gibson himself, lounging in the doorway and smiling the famously lop-sided smile that had millions of women, including my flatmate Anne, practically dribbling with lust.
I'd never dribbled myself. I'm not much of a dribbler at the best of times, and that oh-so-engaging smile smacked a little too much of I'm-incredibly-attractive-and-charming-and-don't-I-know-it for my taste.
My first reaction at the sight of Phin was one of surprise. No, thinking about it, surprise isn't quite the right word. I was startled.
I'd known what he looked like, of course. It would have been hard not to when Anne had insisted that I sit through endless repeats of Into the Wild. It's her flat, so she gets control of the remote.
If you're one of the two per cent of the population fortunate enough never to have seen it, Phin Gibson takes ill-assorted groups of people to the more inhospitable places on the planet, where they have to complete some sort of task in the most appalling conditions. On camera.
According to Anne, it makes for compulsive viewing, but personally I've never been able to see the point of making people uncomfortable just for sake of it. I mean, what's the point of hacking through a jungle when you can take a plane?
But don't get me started on reality TV. That's another thing I can't bear.
So I was braced against the extraordinary blue eyes, the shaggy dark blond hair and the smile, but I hadn't counted on how much bigger and more immediate Phin seemed in real life. Seeing him on the small screen gave no sense of the vivid impact of his presence.
I'm not sure I can explain it properly. You know that feeling when a gust of wind catches you unawares? When it swirls round you, sucking the air from your lungs and leaving you blinking and ruffled and invigorated? Well, that's what it felt like the first time I laid eyes on Phin Gibson.
There was a kind of lazy grace about him as he leant there, watching me with amusement. So it wasn't that he radiated energy. It was more that everything around him was energised by his presence. You could practically see the molecules buzzing in the air, and Phin himself seemed to be using up more than his fair share of oxygen in the room, which left me annoyingly short of breath.
Not that I was going to let Phin guess that.
'Good morning, Mr Gibson,' I said. Minimising the screen just in case, I took off the glasses I wear for working at the computer and offered a cool smile.
'Is it possible that you're my PA?' The blue eyes studied me with a mixture of surprise, amusement and appreciation as Phin levered himself away from the doorway and strolled into the room.
'I'm Summer Curtis, yes.'
A little miffed at his surprise, and ruffled by the amusement, I pushed back my chair so that I could rise and offer my hand across the desk. Some of us were professional.
Phin's fingers closed around mine and he held onto my hand as he looked at me. 'Summer? No.'
'I'm afraid so,' I said a little tightly. I can't tell you how many times I've wished I was called something sensible, like Sue or Sarah, but never more than at that moment, with those blue eyes looking down into mine, filled with laughter.
I tried to withdraw my hand, but Phin was keeping a tight hold on it, and I was uncomfortably aware of the firm warmth of skin pressed against mine.
'You are so not a Summer,' he said. 'I've never met anyone with a more inappropriate name. Although I did know a girl called Chastity once, now I come to think of it,' he added. 'Look at you. Cool and crisp. Conker-brown hair. Eyes like woodsmoke. What were your parents thinking when they called you Summer instead of Autumn?'
'Not about how embarrassing it would be for me to go through life named after a season, anyway,' I said, managing to tug my hand free at last. I sat down again and rested it on the desk, where it throbbed disconcertingly.
'I must thank Lex,' said Phin. To add to my discomfort, he perched on my desk and turned sideways to look at me. 'He told me he'd appointed a PA for me, but I was expecting a dragon.'
'I can be a dragon if required,' I said, although right then I felt very undragon-like. I was suffocatingly aware of Phin on the other side of the desk. He wasn't anywhere near me, but his presence was still overwhelming. 'I'm fully qualified,' I added stiffly.
'I feel sure Lex wouldn't have appointed you if you weren't,' Phin said.
He had picked up my pencil and was twirling it absently between his fingers. It's the kind of fiddling that drives me mad, and I longed to snatch it from him, but I wasn't that much of a dragon.
'What's your brief?' he added, still twirling.
The look he shot me was unexpectedly acute. 'Don't tell me Lex hasn't put you in here to keep an eye on me.'
I shifted uncomfortably.
'You're the most sensible person around here,' had been Lex Gibson's exact words when he offered me the job. 'I need someone competent to stop that idiot boy doing anything stupid. God knows what he'd get up to on his own!'
Not that I could tell Phin that. I admired Lex, but I wondered now if he was quite right. Phin didn't seem like an idiot to me, and he certainly wasn't a boy. He wasn't that much older than me—in his early thirties, perhaps—but he was clearly all man.
'Your brother thought it would be helpful for you to have an assistant who was familiar with the way the company operates,' I said carefully instead.
'In other words,' said Phin, interpreting this without difficulty, 'my brother thinks I'm a liability and wants you to keep me in order.'
I'd leapt at the chance of a promotion, even if it did mean working for Lex Gibson's feckless younger brother. Perhaps I should just explain, for those of you who have just jetted in from Mars—well, OK, from outside the UK—Gibson & Grieve is a long-established chain of department stores with a reputation for quality and style that others can only envy. The original, very exclusive store was in London, but now you'll find us in all the major British cities—setting a gold standard in retail, as Lex likes to say.
The Grieves died out long ago, but the Gibsons still have a controlling share, and Lex Gibson now runs the company with an iron hand. As far as I knew, Phin had never shown the slightest interest in Gibson & Grieve until now, but, as heir to a substantial part of it, he was automatically a member of the board. He was coming in right at the top, and that meant that his PA—me—would be working at the most senior level.
I gathered the idea was for Phin to spend a year as the public face of Gibson & Grieve, so even though the job wasn't permanent it would look very good on my CV. And the extra money wouldn't hurt, either. If I was ever going to be able to buy my own place I needed to save as much as I could, and this promotion would make quite a difference to my salary. I'm someone who likes to have a plan, and this job was a major step on my way. I might not be thrilled at the thought of working for Phin Gibson, but it wasn't an opportunity I was prepared to lose.
I couldn't dream about a future with Jonathan now, I remembered sadly, and that left buying my own flat the only plan I had. I mustn't jeopardise it by getting on the wrong side of Phin, no matter how irritatingly he fiddled.
'I'm your personal assistant,' I assured him. 'It's my job to support you. I'm here to do whatever you want.'
'Of course,' I began with dignity, then saw that his eyes were alight with laughter. To my chagrin, I felt a blush steal up my cheeks. It was just a pity my plan involved working with someone who was clearly incapable of taking anything seriously. 'Within reason, of course.'
'Oh, of course,' Phin agreed, eyes still dancing.
Then, much to my relief, he dropped the pencil and got up from the desk. 'Well, if we're going to be working together we'd better get to know each other properly, don't you think? Let's have some coffee.'
'Certainly.' Making coffee for my boss. That I could do. Pleased to be back in proper PA mode, I swung my chair round and got to my feet. 'I'll make some right away.'
'I don't want you to make it,' said Phin. 'I want to go out.'
'But you've just arrived,' I objected.
'I know, and I'm feeling claustrophobic already.' He looked around the office without enthusiasm. 'It's all so…sterile. Doesn't it make you want to shout obscenities and throw rubbish everywhere?'
I actually winced at the thought.
'No,' I said. Gibson & Grieve had always been noted for its style and up-market image. The offices were all beautifully designed and gleamed with the latest technology. I loved the fact that this one was light and spacious, and free as yet of any of the clutter that inevitably accumulated in a working office. 'I like everything neat and tidy,' I told Phin.
'You know, I should have been able to guess that,' he said in a dry voice, and I suddenly saw myself through his eyes: crisp and restrained in my grey suit, my hair fastened neatly back from my face. In comparison, he looked faintly unkempt, in jeans, a black T-shirt and a battered old leather jacket. He might look appropriate for a media meeting, but it was hardly appropriate for an executive director of a company like Gibson & Grieve, I thought disapprovingly.
Still, I had no doubt he was even less impressed by me. I would have bet on the fact that he thought me smart, but dull.
But then maybe all men thought that when they looked at me. Jonathan had, too, in the end.
I pushed the thought of Jonathan aside. 'We can go out if you'd rather,' I said. 'But don't you at least want to check your messages first?'
Phin's brows rose. 'I have messages?'
'Of course. You're a director and a board member,' I pointed out. 'We set up a new e-mail address for you last week, and you've been getting messages ever since. I'm able to filter them for you, and you have another address which only you will be able to access.'
'Great,' said Phin. 'Filtering sounds good to me. Is there anything important?'
'It's all important when you're a director.' I couldn't help the reproving note in my voice, but Phin only rolled his eyes.
'OK, is there anything urgent?'
I was forced to admit that there wasn't. 'Not really.'
'There you go,' he said cheerfully. 'I didn't think I'd need a PA, but Lex was right—as always. You've saved me wading through all those e-mails already. You deserve a coffee for that,' he told me, and held open the door for me. 'Come on, let's go.'
It was all going to be very different now, I thought, stifling a sigh as we headed down the corridor to the lift. I was used to working for Lex Gibson, who barely stopped working to sip the coffee Monique, his PA, took in to him.