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In a fit of pique, Henry TreverneHal to his friendswheeled himself along the parquet hallway up to the wall panel in the door and buzzed the concierge.
'If anyone else turns up for an interview today tell them I've come down with malaria, will you? I'm done with talking to fawning women who are convinced they can magic my problems away like Cinderella's fairy godmother, and I've also had my fill of the ones that gaze at me like I'm some kind of longed-for early Christmas present!'
'But, Mr Treverne, your next applicant is already here Do you really think you've got malaria? If that's true, shouldn't you be in the hospital?'
The concierge of Hal's buildinga down-to-earth young Londoner called Charliesounded understandably perturbed. Hefting a frustrated sigh, Hal tunnelled his fingers through the mane of coal-black hair that was in dire need of a proper cut and bit back a curse.
'Of course I haven't got malaria. I've just got back from Aspen, Colorado, not the damn Amazon!' He brought himself up short. 'What do you mean my next applicant is already here?'
Impatiently unfolding the scrunched-up piece of paper lying on his lap, he couldn't help but succumb to a ripe curse, when he saw there was one more person the agency had scheduled him to see. A woman named Kit Blessington. God save him from one more insincere female desperate for the chance to be his 'carer' and in all probability make herself a nice little bonus by selling a story about her experience to the press when he was back on his feet again.
'The lady arrived early and is waiting to see you, Mr Treverne.'
'Well, you can tell Ms Blessed, or whatever her name is, that I'm too tired to see anyone else today. Tell her she can come back tomorrow.'
'I'd rather see you now, if I could, Mr Treverne? After all, that was what was arranged. Plus, it's not convenient for me to come back tomorrow.'
Hal was taken aback by the assertively toned female voice that sounded in his ear. 'What do you mean, it's not convenient?' he growled. 'Are you in the market for a job or are you not?' His already bad mood plummeted even more. The woman clearly hadn't taken him seriously when he'd said he was too tired.
'I wouldn't be signed on with the agency if I wasn't interested in a job, Mr Treverne. And, by the way, my name is Blessingtonnot Blessed.'
'What's the reason you can't come back tomorrow?' Even as he ground out the question the back of Hal's neck prickled with intense dislike for this woman he hadn't even come face to face with yet.
'If you must know, I have another interview to attend in Edinburgh. I can't see you tomorrow if I'm travelling up to Scotland. That's why I'd like to keep my appointment with you today.'
The frank confession rendered him momentarily dumbstruck. He wasn't best pleased that she'd arranged another interview when she hadn't even given him the courtesy of seeing him yet. What did she think she was playing at? Surely the agency must have told her who he was that under the circumstances he had to be a priority?
'What the hell do you want to go to Scotland for?' he burst out, not caring that he sounded rude and unreasonable.
There was a brief pause, then in a level tone she replied, 'I go wherever the work takes me, Mr Treverne. We don't just work in the UK. The agency sends us all over Europe as well. Now, will you see me today or not?'
Feeling particularly belligerent, because inside the cast his leg was intolerably aching, and itching as well, Hal retorted, 'I'll give you ten minutes, Ms Blessing-ton. Ten minutes should be ample time for me to glean whether you're suitable or not for the position, and whether it would indeed be better if you simply went ahead with your interview in Edinburgh. You'd better come up.'
'Thank you. I appreciate it. But just to reassure you, Mr Treverne, I too quite quickly make up my mind about whether I want to work for someone or not. So, yes I'm sure it won't take long for either of us to reach a decision.'
She was playing verbal bat and ball with him, Hal realised, and it made him feel as if she was the one taking charge of the situation, not him. It certainly didn't bode well for her interview.
Damn his accident! It beggared belief that he'd surrendered to the crazy impulse to agree to a stupid contest on the ski slopes with his ex-business partner Simon. If his pride hadn't made him take the bait he wouldn't be in the intolerable position he was in nowrecovering from a lengthy operation to help repair a badly damaged femur and unable to do all the things he had no doubt taken for granted and shouldn't have.
If he hadn't been in so much pain as the paramedics lifted him onto the stretcher, he would have checked to see if the concern Simon had so loudly expressed to the crowd that had gathered was sincere. Hal very much doubted it. He could just imagine the man who had always been his rival describing the scene to mutual colleagues and friends and commenting, How the mighty are fallen
One thing was certain. Hal wasn't going to live down the ignominy of the painful incident any time soon.
Disgruntled and hurting, he punched the keypad to open the door and reversed the wheelchair a couple of feet back down the hall as he waited for the irri-tatingly forthright Ms Blessington to come in and be interviewed. In truth, he was absolutely prepared to dislike her on sight.
When he first glimpsed the gloriously red hair that rippled down over her slim shoulders as she came through the door he wasn't surprised. It was said that redheads were feisty and opinionated. And this particular redhead definitely had the look and stance of a public school head girl. He already knew that she was assertivea woman who knew what she wanted and wasn't afraid to state itand the unfussy green wool dress and almost military-style tartan jacket she wore with it suggested she selected her clothes more out of practicality than from any desire to make a fashion statement. The outfit might even have been bought at a charity shop. Yet the bright cerise stockings she'd teamed with sensible brown court shoes hinted at an intriguing rebellious streak that belied the illusion of 'needs must' and definitely gave Hal pause.
Lifting his head, he was momentarily taken aback to find his gaze captured by a pair of the prettiest cornflower-blue eyes he'd ever seen. Even before she opened her mouth to speak he had concluded that the woman was a fascinating conundrum that under more conducive circumstances he might, just might be tempted to try and unravel. But when she next spoke any impulse to be more interested than he should be instantly vanished.
'I can see why you sounded so bad-tempered just now.' Frowning, she set a purple velvet shoulder bag down on the floor and purposefully stepped towards him, like an extremely efficient ward nurse intent on taking his temperature. 'If you don't mind my saying so, you do look rather uncomfortable. Your brow is beaded with sweat and I can see you're in pain. They told me at the agency that you'd broken your femur and that it was a bad break. Do you need a painkiller? If you tell me where they are I'll get them for you, if you'd like?'
'I've taken a couplejust a few minutes ago.'
For stupefying seconds the arresting floral scent his redoubtable interviewee wore transported Hal to a beautiful spring garden after a gentle rain had fallen, and it made it hard for him to think straight. It didn't help that she stood close enough for him to reach out and touch one of the fiery red coils of hair that cascaded over her shoulders, and the shockingly inappropriate impulse made his heart thunder inside his chest like a herd of galloping horses.
Taken aback by the surprising reaction, he coughed a little to clear his throat. 'The pills take a while to kick in. So, no, I don't need you to get me any more. The last thing I need is to feel comatose. I think we should just get on with the interview, don't you?'
'Of course.' The redhead's alabaster skin flushed a little, but quickly getting over any embarrassment she might have felt and levelling a searching glance at him, she asked, 'Instead of staying in that wheelchair, would you not prefer to conduct our interview lying on the sofa, with some cushions behind you for a while? I'm sure it would be a lot more comfortable. I can help you, if you'd like?'
He should have known correction was inevitable, and Hal chewed down on his lip to stop himself from responding with something he might regret.
'Let's get one thing straight. I'm not looking to hire a facsimile of Florence Nightingale. I have round-the-clock access to a highly professional medical team if I want it. What I needthat is, the person I'm looking to hireis someone who can be a temporary companion and help with all things practical while I recuperate. That's why I need a home help. I need someone not just to drive me wherever I want, to arrange for shopping to be delivered, make the odd cup of tea or coffee and rustle up a meal or a snack whenever I need it, but also someone with the ability to make intelligent conversation, who has an interest in music and filmtwo of the things that entertain me the most. I want this person to be on call twenty-four-seven in case I can't sleep and want some company.''
The woman in front of him released the smallest sigh, but Hal didn't think it was because the criteria for the post that he'd outlined in any way daunted her. In fact the interested examination she'd submitted him to as he spoke had been unflinchingly direct.
'That's more or less what the agency told me you needed, Mr Treverne, and I want you to know that I have no problem with any of those things.'
'You've worked for clients with similar requirements before?'
'Yes. I recently worked for an actress recovering from a particularly bad bout of flu that had left her feeling extremely weak. I had to do many of the things you've mentioned for her too, until she could manage on her own again.'
The experience hadn't been a particularly good one for Kit, because the woman in question was spoilt and disagreeable. She had run her ragged for the six long weeks she'd worked for her, taking every opportunity to let her know how much she was admired and envied by her fellow thespians in the theatrical world for her beauty and acting prowessher tone suggesting that Kit should feel privileged that she'd hired her.
But Kit hadn't felt resentful towards the woman, because she clearly hadn't been able to see how very unattractive her vanity and superior manner actually made her. During all the time Kit had been with her she hadn't had so much as one person call to see how she was doing. Kit had ended up feeling very sorry for her.
'And, seeing as I need you to be available round the clock, you're aware that this is a live-in position?'
Hal's arresting voice broke into her reverie.
'Most of the jobs with the agency are. Don't worryall your requirements were explained to me in detail, Mr Treverne. Is there anything else you'd like to ask me?'
'Yes. How old are you?'
'And you don't have a "significant other" who might express reservations about you living-in? Especially when the person you'll be working for is male?' If Hal had hoped to rattle her with his slightly mocking inflection, he'd failed. His outspoken interviewee gave no visible sign whatsoever that the question had perturbed her in any way. Instead, she remained unshak-ably composed.
'I'm unattached, so there's no one in my life to express any reservations. In any case I wouldn't tolerate being in a relationship with someone who dictated what I could or couldn't do, or minded that I lived in if it was part of my job which it clearly is.'
The blunt confession piqued Hal's curiosity even more. He found himself wondering what her story was. His sister Sam, who invariably liked to try and get to the root of someone's make-up, would no doubt presume the woman's outspoken and direct attitude had manifested itself as a result of her being bulliedeither during her childhood or even in the recent past. Because of it, she'd probably made a mental decision not to let herself be intimidated by anyone ever again. He could almost hear Sam saying it. In Sam's psychology practice she'd seen plenty of clients with similar stories. Except it wasn't hard to guess that Ms Kit Blessington was no push-over In Hal's view, only a fool would presume otherwise.
The notion didn't disturb him one jot. He'd rather have someone capable and strong-minded working for him than some shy wallflower who wouldn't say boo to a goose. It took him aback to realise that in the space of a few short minutes he'd become inexplicably fascinated by the woman. Fascinated or not, he reminded himself, it was hardly a good idea for him to be interested in a prospective employee albeit a temporary one. At any rate, it wasn't a fascination that meant he was remotely attracted to her, he assured himself sternly. She might be unquestionably pretty, but she was no knock-out that he'd have trouble resisting should he hire her.
As if to remind him of the reason for them having this discussion at all, his leg started to throb like the blazes, and once again a wave of perspiration beaded his forehead. Should he or shouldn't he give her a few days' trial to see if she was suitable? God knew none of the other applicants he'd seen had been remotely suitable. Damn it, he needed someone capable and reliable to help him out as soon as possible or he'd be fit to be tied! His situation had already begun making him feel unbearably imprisoned, and for a man who was used to being so activeliving life at 'breakneck speed', as his sister so often observed with concernthe experience was bordering on torture.
Giving the redhead a long, assessing glance, he said, 'Follow me into the living room and we can talk about this some more.' Hal's tone rang with the innate command that came only too easily to him. Would his potential home help be able to handle an often belligerent and exacting male who made no apology for it?
'You mean you want the interview to continue?'
'Well, I'm not inviting you into my living room to get your opinion on the decor, Ms Blessington.' Even as he uttered the droll reply Hal registered that it was the first time he'd seen so much as a flicker of doubt in the woman's bright blue eyesas if she'd momentarily feared her forthright manner might have talked her out of the job. As he turned away to steer the wheelchair further down the hall towards the living room he couldn't help mentally storing the information in case he ever had occasion to draw upon it. In his profession he'd long ago learned the wisdom of knowing his advantages when it came to relationshipsprofessional or otherwise. And neither was he above using them.