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Rico stared at the application in front of himagainbefore blowing out a breath and slumping in his chair. He'd had such high hopes for this projecthopes of finding someone as fantastically enthusiastic about it as he was.
His lips twisted. Hopes of finding someone not only fantastically enthusiastic but with first-rate qualifications and solid experience to bring to the table as well. A day and a half into the interviews, however, and he'd found he could kiss that notion goodbye.
He straightened. Punching a button on his intercom, he barked, 'Is Janeen Cuthbert here yet, Lisle?'
'Not yet, but there's still ten minutes until her appointment.'
Wasn't it an unspoken rule to arrive ten minutes early for a job interview? He scowled at the wall opposite. Restaurant managers, it seemed, worked to their own schedules. Not that Hobart's restaurant managers were beating a path to his door for the opportunity to run a charity cafe.
He slammed Janeen Cuthbert's file shut.
Pressing thumb and forefinger to the bridge of his nose, he tried to breathe through the pounding at his temples, tried to push it back and concentrate. He'd thought he'd be able to find one community-inspired restaurant manager with a few street smarts in this rotten city.
He wasn't greedy. He only wanted the one. How hard could that be?
He'd had community-inspired people, all right. He'd had sunny, bright and earnest applicants without a scrap of experience between them. Nice people. But he could see the likely outcome all too vividly. The boys would walk all over them, would dishearten and disillusion them. There'd be tears and tantrums. And then they'd be gone, leaving him in the lurch. This project was too important to risk that.
He glanced at his watch. Five minutes to two. If Janeen Cuthbert wasn't here at two on the dot then she could just turn around again and march straight back home. She might at least have worked in a cafe, but he needed someone who would take this job seriously. He needed someone fully committed to making this cafe work.
For the next five minutes he drummed his fingers against his desk. He didn't turn to look out of his window at the busy Hobart thoroughfare below. His wasn't one of the offices that afforded a glimpse of the harbour. As he was rarely in his office, however, he didn't much care. As a project manager, he didn't even have his own secretary. He had to share Lisle with two other governmental project officers. He didn't much care about that either. He'd long since come to the conclusion that if you wanted a job done, you did it yourself.
He glanced at his watch. Two p.m.
He went to push the button on the intercom, but Lisle beat him to it. 'Janeen Cuthbert is here for her two o'clock appointment, Rico.'
He gritted his teeth and swallowed. 'Send her in.'
He counted to three. A soft knock sounded on his door. He swore under his breath. That knock was too soft. It was the kind of knock that lacked backbone. His hands fisted. Darn it! He'd had enough of sweet and nice and inefficient to last him a lifetime.
He tried to uncurl his lip. 'Come in.'
When he clapped eyes on his penultimate interviewee, however, he immediately reassessed his prior judgement. Ms Cuthbert didn't look as if she lacked a backbone. In fact, she looked boiling mad, as if she were about to explode. She hid it well, but he'd spent too many hours working with troubled youths not to recognise the signsthe glitter in her eyes, the colour high on her cheekbones and the flared nostrils. Even if it was all tucked away beneath a polite smile.
He stared at her and his shoulders unhitched a fraction. She might be a lot of things, but he was suddenly certain the one thing she wasn't was meek and mild.
He kicked himself forward from behind his desk. 'Yes.'
'Pleased to meet you. I'm Neen Cuthbert.'
She strode across to him, hand extended. It was bright red, as if it had recently been scrubbed to within an inch of its life. He briefly clasped it and then stepped back. She wasn't wearing pantyhose and her knees were bright red too.
It wasn't her hands or her knees that held his attention, though. Her dove-grey suit sported four equidistant pawprintstwo on her thighs and two just above her breasts. No amount of scrubbing could hide those. For the first time in two days he found himself biting back a smile.
When his gaze returned to her face, her chin went up a notch, as if daring him to say one word about those pawprints.
'I'm pleased to meet you, Neen.' He kept his voice even and some of the glitter eased from her eyes. He pursed his lips and then shook his head. 'I suspect your afternoon has been as stressful as mine.'
A flash of humour lit up her face. 'It's that obvious, huh?' She glanced down at the pawprints, her lips twisting. 'It has been something of a trial,' she allowed.
'Please, take a seat.' He motioned to a chair. Moving back around his desk, he stabbed a finger to his intercom. 'I know it's going above and beyond, Lisle, but could we possibly have coffee in here?'
'Coming right up,' she shot back cheerfully.
To his mind, the other two project managers took thorough advantage of their shared secretary. Rico didn't see coffee making as part of Lisle's duties. In this instance, though, he was prepared to make an exception.
'That was kind of you.' Neen's glance was direct. 'Truly, though, you didn't have to do that on my account.'
He waved that away. 'You may not thank me once you've tasted it.' It wouldn't be cafe standard by any means. 'But, to be perfectly frank, I could do with a hit of caffeine.'
'I take it your interviews aren't going well?'
He stiffened at her question, realising how unprofessional he must appear. He shifted on his chair, fighting a frown. He'd let his guard down. He couldn't remember the last time that had happened.
He shook his head. He needed a holiday.
He shook it again. He didn't have time for a holiday.
'It's hardly surprising, though, is it?' she said, obviously misinterpreting the shaking of his head. 'You want a highly qualified and experienced restaurant manager, but the wage you're offering is hardly attractive.'
'And yet you applied.'
She pointed to her file on his desk. 'As you'll have no doubt ascertained from my resume, I'm not what you'd call highly experienced.'
'And yet you still applied?'
'And you decided to interview me.'
Okay, she definitely had backbone. She might not be cheerful and earnest, but she definitely had backbone, and that trumped cheerful and earnest any day. At least for this particular job.
Lisle came in with two steaming coffees. After she'd left he asked, 'What happened?' He gestured to the pawprints.
He made it a vague gesture, because he didn't want her to think he was checking out her chest. He hadn't been going to ask, but her criticism of the wage he was offering made him dispense with the niceties. Besides, he held those pawprints entirely responsible for his momentary lapse. If he found the answer to their mystery, he could then concentrate on getting this interview, and himself, firmly back on track.
She'd started to lift her mug, but at his words she set it back down with a thump. She didn't spill a single drop, though. 'Nothing today is going as planned. I came in here prepared with a pretty speech about why I'm the best applicant for your job. Instead I make snarky comments about the remuneration package and '
Just for a moment her shoulders sagged. In the next instant, however, she straightened them again.
Her eyes suddenly danced and she seized her coffee and sipped it.
'I mean to enjoy this,' she raised her mug in his direction, 'because I'm guessing it doesn't much matter what I say from here on. And after the day I've had I'm not going to beat myself up about it.'
She was mistaken if she thought she was out of the running. Not that he had any intention of telling her so. Yet. 'Well?' He raised an eyebrow.
She cradled her mug in her hands and crossed her legs. One of those red knees peeped out at him. 'My flaky neighbour has landed me with her doggifted him to me, would you believe?while she jets off to Italy for some indefinite amount of time on multiple modelling contracts.'
He gestured. Again, vaguely. 'So the dog ?'
'He did a whole lot more than that. You should see the state of my navy suit and my pantyhose.'
She lifted the mug to her lips and took a sip. He watched, fascinated, as she closed her eyes in what he guessed was bliss. He reached for his own mug and took a sip too. It was good. He let out a breath he hadn't even been aware of holding. The tightness in his shoulders eased a fraction more.
'It's hardly Monty's fault, though. Audra's never trained him, and at fourteen months he's not much more than a puppy still.'
He stared at those pawprints. 'What kind of puppy?'
'A Great Dane.' She shook her head in disgust. 'No pretty little Chihuahua or toy poodle for Audra. Oh, no. She thought that a cliche. She wanted to be the model with the Great Dane. She thought the photo opportunities would be fabulous.'
She suddenly grinned. It changed her entire bearing. Backbone: tick. Sense of humour: tick. Whoever won the position would need both of those in spades.
'Oh, the photo opportunities were there, but unfortunately they weren't to Audra's advantage.'
A chuckle broke free from his throat. The images Neen's quick sketch evoked were alive in his mind. 'Why did you agree to take him?'
'Ah, well, that would be because she snuck him into my apartment while I was in the shower, left a note explaining it all and then hightailed it for the airport.'
The act of someone who knew Neen couldn't be taken advantage of. 'What are you going to do with
He shifted on his chair. Would she call the pound? He could hardly blame her. But.
'I guess I'll have to find a home for him.' She sent him a smile of such extraordinary sweetness it momentarily stole his breath. 'Mr D'Angelo,' she purred. 'You look exactly like a man in need of a dog.'
He stared. He floundered. Finally common sense reasserted itself. 'I'm not home often enough. It wouldn't be fair to the dog.' Inside him, a grin built. The minx!
All of her sweetness vanished. 'If only everyone who decided to get a dog had half as much foresight,' she muttered, and the grin inside him grew. 'There should be some kind of dog-ownership test that people have to pass before they're allowed to get a dog.'
'The same could be said for having kids.'
She stared at him for a moment. 'Your troubled youth, huh?'
'Disadvantaged,' he corrected.
'Semantics,' she shot back.
'I'm not saying they don't have issues. But all they need is a chance.' Which was where he came in. 'The purpose of the cafe is to train underprivileged youths in basic waiting and kitchen-hand skills, with a view to finding them permanent employment in the hospitality industry.'
She drained her mug, set it on the desk and then leaned towards him, her eyes suddenly earnest. 'Mr D'Angelo, I wish you every luck in your endeavour. I also thank you for the brief respite and the coffee.'
'Neen, you're not out of the running.'
She'd started to rise, but at his words she fell back into her chair. She gaped at him. 'I'm not?'
Her eyes suddenly narrowed. 'Why not?'
He laughed. It was sudden and sharp and took him completely by surprise. But a healthy dose of suspicion wouldn't go astray in the job either, and
Neen was ticking all his boxes. 'Not all the applicants have been a total waste of time,' he assured her. 'There's a couple who have potential.'
'I'm questioning their commitment.'
She sat back and folded her arms. 'Why aren't you questioning mine?'
He didn't even need to think about it. 'You're honest, and I need that in an employee. You also have grit and a sense of humour, and I suspect both of those traits will be necessary in this particular job.'
She unfolded her arms. 'So you're not going to sugarcoat the position and tell me it's the job of a lifetime?'
'It'll be a challenge, but a rewarding one.' 'Hmm.' She didn't look convinced on that last point.
'And you're a dog-lover.' That made a difference. Dog-lovers generally got on well with kids, and'No, I'm not.' He blinked.
'I loathe dogs. I can't stand them. They're noisy, smelly, stupid creatures. I'd much rather have a cat.'
It was his turn to gape. 'But you're still trying to find Monty a home. You haven't given him up to the pound.'
'It's not the dumb dog's fault his owner has abandoned him.'
He leaned towards her. 'That means, then, Neen Cuthbert, that you're a person of integrity. And that definitely ticks my boxes.' The day suddenly seemed much much brighter.
'What about my lack of experience?'
Her lack of experience was an issue, but He pulled her resume towards him. 'You've been working in the hospitality industry in one shape or another since you finished high school eight years ago.'
She nodded. 'I've been a waitress, a shortorder cook, and I've worked for two big-name catering firms.'
None of her positions, however, had carried the title of restaurant manager. 'I see you recently completed a small business course?'
'My long-term goal is to open my own cafe.'
'I think one should dream big, don't you?'
'What do you think you can bring to the advertised role, Neen?'
Her eyes danced again. 'Besides honesty, grit, a sense of humour and integrity, you mean?'
She was right. He opened his mouth. With a superhuman effort he snapped it shut again. He still had one more applicant to interview. And he wasn't given to impulsive gestures or decisions.
She sobered. 'I'll work hard, Mr D'Angelo. That's what I have to offer you.'
The way she said it made it sound like the most valuable thing in the world. And it occurred to him that perhaps it was.
'I've been acting manager on numerous occasions at most of the establishments I've worked for, but it has never been part of my job description. I want the experience your job will provide me. In return for that I will work hard. And I won't let you down.'
He believed her. There was just one final question. No, two. 'Why are you currently unemployed?'
She hesitated. 'There are personal reasons.'
He leaned back and waited to see if she would tell him.
She stared at him as if assessing him, as if weighing whether he needed to know the truth and if she could trust him with it. Eventually she lifted one shoulder. 'Earlier in the year I was left an inheritance. I planned to put the dream of my own cafe into action at once.' She smoothed her hair back behind her ears. 'The will, however, is being contested.'
She didn't need to tell him what a blow that had been. He could see that all too clearly. 'I'm sorry.'
She lifted her chin. Her cool blue eyes were veiled. 'These things happen. Until it's sorted out it seemed wise to find another job.'
She obviously wasn't the kind to sit back and wring her hands. He had the distinct impression that, like him, in times of stress she liked to keep busy.
He picked up his pen and tapped it against her file. 'One final question. Would you be prepared to sign a two-year contract?'
'No.' She spoke without hesitation.
The weight slammed back to his shoulders. The day went dank and grey.
'I would be prepared to sign a twelve-month contract.'
It was something, he supposed. But it wasn't enough. It was a shame, because on every other point Neen Cuthbert had been perfect.