Read an Excerpt
Any minute now! Michelle thought as the prow of the Arcadia nosed around the headland of St Valere. She had been waiting for this. Even so, she took a moment to admire her employer's vast yacht as it cut a white slit through the bright blue Mediterranean.
It would be a terrible wrench when this temporary job came to an endif anyone could call being housekeeper at the villa Jolie Fleur 'work'. This position was a godsend, although the thought of her contract coming to an end lurked on her horizon like a big black cloud. And right now she was watching a thunderhead arrive to join it.
The previous day, her employer's domestic manager had rung Michelle from the yacht. Sounding tense and exasperated, the woman had warned her that an unexpected guest was going to be staying at the villa. Michelle had soon found out why. One of her employer's grandest guests was not fitting in to life on board ship. Michelle had laughed at this, thinking it was because of seasickness. But the truth was more than that.
Billionaire art dealer Alessandro Castiglione couldn't be confined to the ocean. He was supposed to be taking a few weeks' complete break from work, the housekeeper had said, but her tone had told Michelle more than her words. She had known then what was in store for her, because she had seen plenty of men like him. Alessandro Castiglione would be a driven man, who drove his staff mad at the same time. He might be, as the woman had told her, 'The best-looking thing in every magazine!', but Michelle knew it took more than good looks to keep a tycoon at the top of his game.
Cleaning offices in central London had given her a glimpse of the brutal side of business life. So when the domestic manager had added a bit of gossip, Michelle had taken it with a pinch of salt. This man, she'd said, had recently taken over his father's firm and sacked nearly all its employees. If that wasn't bad enough, the woman had added in a low voice, they were all his aunts, uncles and cousins!
What sort of man would sack his relatives? Even Michelle's mother had never done that! She thought back to the life she had been so glad to abandon a few months earlier. Working for her mother had been hell. Mrs Spicer was an absolute perfectionist. The two of them, as Spicer and Co, had built up a reputation for fast, discreet domestic service anywhere in central London. Mrs Spicer had given the orders. Michelle had been the 'and Co' part of their business. She did all the dirty work.
But I'm in sole charge now! Michelle thought. Despite her nervousness, she allowed herself a small smile as she waited to greet her famous house guest. However bad he was, Alessandro Castiglione couldn't possibly be a worse task-master than her mother.
Michelle always kept Jolie Fleur spotless, so this unexpected arrival hadn't made too much extra work for her. And what was the worst this man could do? Sack her? She only had a few weeks left in this position anyway. He might be an unexploded bomb, but Michelle had total confidence in her skills. She knew that if she worked hard and kept out of his way there would be no reason for him to lose his temperat least not with her.
A man who dumps his own relatives will think nothing of throwing me out on my ear, and I'm not ready to leave! She thought. A keen sense of self-preservation had got her this far in life. Now she had escaped from England, she was curious to see how much further she might go.
As she watched from the clifftop overlooking the bay, a shape detached itself from the yacht's flight deck. It was a helicopter. Michelle shaded her eyes with her hand. It was always exciting to watch it swing into the hard blue sky with the grace of a wheeling seagull. She spent so long gazing up, the helicopter was almost overhead before she remembered she ought to be in position to welcome her unwelcome guest. She walked around to the front doors of the villa, making one last check of the exterior as she did so. The windows and white paintwork gleamed in the blinding sunlight. Inside the house, everything was ready. The caretaker and the gardener were the only permanent members of staff during the holiday season, but they weren't anywhere to be seen.
Nervously, she checked her fingernails and her uniform. Everything was clean and neat, as usual. Keeping busy was Michelle's way of coping with the world. With nothing left to panic about, she ran through what she would do when the unexpected house guest landed.
I'll give him a smile and a slight bow of my head, she thought. Then I'll extend my hand for a handshake, tell him to ring me if he needs anything, and vanish.
That didn't sound too difficult. The tricky part was actually managing it. Michelle loved this job because it gave her the chance to spend a lot of time on her own. People always made her nervous. The prospect of meeting a man who was apparently never photographed with the same model twicewoman or carterrified her.
The incoming helicopter's rumble increased, until it vibrated right through her body. She looked down at the palms of her hands. Tiny beads of perspiration sparkled in their shallow creases. Absent-mindedly she ran them over the severe black skirt of her uniform and then stopped. A proper French chatelaine would never do such a thing!
I might be lucky and find he spends all his time out on the town, she thought, desperately trying to buoy up her spirits. In that case he'll be nocturnal, so I'll hardly see him. Making his stay run smoothly will be enough for me.
She walked quickly round to the front of the villa, the stiff sea breeze at her back. All the windows and doors were wide open, letting a cooling draught rush right through the house. Michelle thought the rich smell of the maquis was much nicer than the soulless scents pumped out by the air-conditioning system. Once she was in place, she could watch the helicopter land with a clear conscience. As it drew closer to the helipad, the racket of its rotors was almost too much to bear. Michelle turned away from the sound and moved closer to the door for protection.
Turning around again, she expected to see the helicopter on the lawn. She got a surprise. It was still hanging in the air. Something must be wrong. Gaston, the pilot, was usually in such a tearing hurry to get back to his poker game on the yacht that he plonked the machine down anywhere. Smashed shrubs and crushed flowers were painful reminders of Gaston's previous overshoots and under-steering. Jolie Fleur's carefully tended mixed borders weren't so much a reminder of their English owner's homeland, they were more of a war zone.
This time was clearly going to be different. Michelle assumed there was a new pilot at the controls. Gaston would never take so long lining up his approach. But when the helicopter suddenly swung away and made a circuit of the house to try another approach, she caught sight of the pilot's face. It was the same old Gaston but, from the furious look on his face, a perfectionist was schooling him in the art of landing.
By the time the helicopter finally came to rest, its skids were lined up exactly with the white letter 'H' stencilled in the centre of Jolie Fleur's main lawn. The racket had been deafening. Michelle's carefully brushed hair was blown to a thatch. As she tried to tame her mousy brown tangle, disaster struck. The helicopter's rotors slowed and its downdraught eased. The drop in pressure meant a gust of wind off the sea got behind the villa's door and slammed it shut behind her with a thunderous bang. Michelle jumpedor would have done, if her uniform hadn't held her back. Its skirt had been sucked in between the heavy door and its jamb. She was trapped and could hardly move.
Tugging at it with growing horror, she realised this was the first and only low point since she'd left Englandbut it was bottomless. She knew the door would have locked.
Desperately hoping for a miracle, she tried the handle anyway. The door didn't move. Her guardian angel must be on holiday.
Michelle's pulse had been galloping with nerves all morning. Now it went into overdrive. What could she do? Wave hopefully at the tall, rangy figure unfolding itself from the helicopter? Appealing for help to a guest when she was supposed to be so efficient wouldn't be the best start to their working relationship. Someone who could teach precision to a slap-dash pilot in one lesson was unlikely to have any time for accidents or mishaps.
Desperately, she tried working her skirt out through the crack, pulling it up and down, backwards and forwards. Nothing worked. The alternative was to tear herself free, leaving her skirt behind. That wasn't an option. A careless housekeeper was one thing. A half-dressed one was unforgivableand totally unforgettable. Trussed up like a chicken, she resigned herself to a roasting.
Signor Alessandro Castiglione stood on the parched lawn, his back to her, as he waited for his designer luggage to be unloaded. Michelle watched, getting hotter and hotter. Long, agonising seconds dripped away. She tensed, ready with a million explanations. Taking possession of a briefcase and laptop, her guest left Gaston to deal with everything else. Marching towards the house, he covered the distance in a terrifyingly short time.
He was nothing like as old as she'd expected, but to think such a young man was already notorious in the newspapers somehow made her situation much worse. Michelle's spirits skidded along rock-bottom. Despite his hunched shoulders and considered pace, he was moving quickly. Instead of taking the track of scuffed, dead grass leading directly from the helipad to the house, he took a much longer route. This went by way of paved paths through banks of thyme and sage, and stretched out her agony still further. Watching bees working among the herb flowers always persuaded Michelle to relax and linger. They had absolutely no effect on this man. He was totally single-minded. Looking neither to left nor right, he homed straight in on the front door of the villa.
If Michelle hadn't been so frantic she would have appreciated his fine features. The natural curl in his thick, dark hair, his quick brown eyes, frowning brow and heavy tread would normally have made such an impression on her she would have been struck dumb. Instead she was speechless with embarrassment. Hands behind her back, she went on easing, tugging and wheedling at her skirt to try and free it. It was no use.
The closer the newcomer got, the more frantic she felt. Her fingers throbbed from trying to break free. So did her pulse. It was so hot. She might as well have been a butterfly beating its wings against a closed window. She was well and truly stuck. If that wasn't bad enough, she was beginning to see why this guest hadn't fitted in on Mr Bartlett's yacht. It was designed for holidays and having a good time. Alessandro Castiglione looked as though he didn't know the meaning of the words. Despite the heat, he was wearing a top-quality suit and a hand-finished shirt. His only concessions to the Mediterranean were the ivory colour of his linen trousers and jacket, the open buttons at his neck, and the mulberry-coloured tie peeking from his pocket.
Michelle swallowed hard. The time for practising her welcome was over. Now for it
'Buongiorno, Signor Castiglione. My name is Michelle Spicer, and I'll be looking after you during your stay here at Jolie Fleur.'
His pale, aristocratic face was compressed. 'I don't need looking after. That's why I jumped ship. There were too many people running round after me. All they do is get in my way,' he growled in faultless English, speaking with the accent of a Caesar. It drove everything from Michelle's mind except her fear of explaining exactly how much of a fool she was.
And then, ten feet away from her, his expression changed from distracted to thoughtful. He stopped. Michelle tried to take a step backwards away from him, but her heels rattled against the firmly closed door. There was no escape. She stood and quailed, while he stood and watched her. He pressed his lips together in a tight line, matching the deep furrows on his brow. Michelle couldn't think of a single thing to say. This was worse than she had ever imagined it would be. She was pinned to the door by his unblinking stare. Michelle tried to tell herself this was just another job and she really shouldn't care what impression he was getting of her. The truth was, she cared very much. Staff should be invisible and silent. Here she was, pegged out with no hope of release. You couldn't get much more visible than that.
Why does he have to be so good-looking? she thought. It wouldn't be half so bad if he was old, or ugly, or ranted and raved at meanything would be easier to bear than this slow, silent interrogation
'Well! What have we got here?' he drawled eventually. 'You're trapped.'
So tell me something I don't know! she thought, but the relish in his eyes was too obvious. Instead, she nodded and tried to smile.
'II'm the housekeeper here at Jolie Fleur and I shall be doing everything I can to make your stay as pleasant as possible ' Though how I'm going to manage it from here she added silently.
It didn't seem much of an obstacle to Alessandro Castiglione. He pinned her to the door with a knowing look.
'Everything?' he questioned with a mischevious twinkle. 'You mean my wish is your command? That's dangerous talk, signorina, when you look to be stuck fast!'
Michelle burbled something wordless, her mind melted by flames of embarrassment. She needn't have bothered. He was far too interested in her problem.
'I was trapped tooon that damned boat,' he added, almost sympathetically.
After a moment's hesitation, Michelle screwed up all her courage and tried an explanation.
'The door slammed shut in the helicopter's down-draught. The key is in my pocket, but I can't reach it,' she said, in a voice so small she hardly recognised it.
To her surprise he gave a quick nod of understanding. 'You must be more careful. This is a very heavy door, Michelle. You're lucky it's only your dress. You might have lost your fingers.'