Authors: Alexandra Brown
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Romance
‘She will be assessing the viability of each department with a view to rationalisation. Of course this may alter our staffing requirements.’ There’s another sharp intake of breath as the news sinks in and we realise what his announcement means. ‘Eddie here has all the details,’ The Heff continues, and my mind is working overtime. Everyone knows rationalising really means downsizing, which means fewer staff.
I guess in the current climate it was inevitable, with so many shops going to the wall. Tension starts to creep down from my shoulders, slowly trickling around to clutch my heart. If I lose my job then I might as well kiss goodbye to everything. Everyone knows how hard it is to find a new job these days. And besides, I love working for Carrington’s. My happy memories with Mum are here.
‘Make a note of your meeting time, and it goes without saying that you will all extend a warm welcome to Maxine who will be working here as of tomorrow.’ My head feels as if it’s bobbing around under water, I can’t think straight. I turn towards James and see that his face has paled. He doesn’t look back at me. Instead he bows his head slightly and mumbles something that I can’t quite hear. Eddie is handing out pieces of paper to us all as The Heff turns around and strides back towards the glass doors.
Immediately, there’s a noise. Everyone is talking, and Eddie is surrounded by people all asking him why he didn’t say something.
‘I didn’t know. Jesus, I only found out myself an hour ago and I’ve been working my fingers to stumps typing out these meeting times at breakneck speed, thanks to that Burberry-clad tapeworm host, Maxine.’ He spits the word ‘Burberry’ like it’s a rancid piece of cheese that he’s just been force-fed. ‘Honestly, if she thinks I’m doubling up as her BA as well, then she can
dream on up into her own skinny arse
.’ Eddie grabs a plastic cup from one of the tables and downs it in one, before crushing it in the palm of his hand and letting out a dramatic gasp.
So much for The Heff leaving then. This is worse – much worse. Eddie’s face has suddenly turned a violent rhubarb-red colour and there’s a hunted look in his eyes, the line of which I follow and immediately see why. The Heff has returned back through the doors and standing next to him is a very tall, absolutely stunning and exceedingly skinny woman. I’m pretty certain my hands could span her waist. She’s wearing a clinging crimson dress that wouldn’t look out of place on Joan Holloway in an episode of
, carrying a matching real Hermès Birkin and standing on five-inch blush patent Loubs to balance out her silicone-enhanced super-bust. And if that wasn’t enough, she has perfect, big, flame-red hair.
I manage to stick a smile across my face as I surreptitiously push a lock of my own limp spaniel’s ear hair back into place before folding my arms across my B-cup boobs. She spreads her red pencil-lined mouth into a dazzling beauty pageant-style smile that I notice doesn’t reach her eyes that are bulging like a pair of Buddhas’ bellies. No, instead, they are fixed firmly on Eddie, who has now adopted a strange facial contortion that he attempts to hide by busying himself inside his clipboard.
‘For those of you who haven’t met her before, this is Maxine,’ The Heff booms, and attempts a little clap that he quickly halts on realising that nobody else is joining in. We all mutter words of welcome that sound distinctly hollow. I wonder what her surname is. Or maybe she’s too important to have one.
‘And this is Tom Rossi …’ and we all glance towards the doors again.
For a glimmer of a second my heart feels as though it might have stopped beating. I feel light-headed. I steady myself against the table and realise my mouth is actually hanging open. I quickly close it and pray none of the others noticed. I see what can only be described as pure unadulterated sex striding towards us. Oh my actual God. This man is a vision. He’s wearing a gorgeous suit that I’d say has been stitched lovingly by hand in Italy or somewhere equally seductive. It’s the perfect shade of ink-blue and frames a crisp white shirt, the collar of which is undone to reveal a teaser of his black curly-haired and very firm tanned chest that has just the right hint of sheen. His eyes are the darkest brown and nestling in sumptuous eyelashes that make me want to lick them right here and now. I can feel my cheeks warming and my stomach flipping. The last time I felt like this was when I first clapped eyes on Henry Cavill when he turned towards the camera in
Count of Monte Cristo
. Every woman in the cinema, and some men too, let out a little gasp of pleasure. I was only a teenager at the time, and raging with hormones that feel as though they’ve just made a very sudden and momentous return.
‘He’s joining us from next Monday,’ The Heff continues. I quickly pull myself together, remembering I’m at work and that this man probably dates the likes of supermodels and
Made in Chelsea
girls, and only then if
are really lucky.
‘Pleased to meet you all,’ Tom says, with the hint of a
accent (upstairs, naturally) and the sensual precision of a Ferrari. I glance over and notice that Eddie is positively drooling. He’s actually licking his lips lasciviously. But there’s no way this man, sorry, this
is gay, because if he is then I think I might quite possibly die. Right here next to the help-yourself salad bar.
he glorious smell of cakey-sweet loveliness engulfs the air as soon as I push open the door to Sam’s café. Instantly I feel my body starting to relax. Every time I come in here it’s as though I’ve entered an oasis of calm, a stark contrast to the bustling atmosphere just a few floors below.
The cosy lounge area has been swathed in decadent plum and rich emerald-green colours, offset with opulent rose-gold cushions scattered all over the huge squishy sofas. Sultry Burlesque-style music is playing and tea lights flicker all around. A projector is displaying a montage of iconic beautiful men across the ceiling.
Collapsing into a sofa by the faux fire, I exhale a long breath and look around while I wait for Sam. She’s not behind the counter, so I’m guessing she must be busy in the kitchen. I feel myself relaxing – in through the nose, and exhale out through my mouth. In for six … out for six … or maybe it’s four. I speed up a bit. A pair of small cold hands appear from behind my head and cover my eyes.
‘What are you doing, Miss Hart?’ I instantly recognise the voice as Sam’s.
‘Trying to relax. Seeing as I’m early for a change.’
‘Relax?’ she gasps. ‘I thought you were channelling childbirth or something. Did you know that you were practically panting?’ She pauses, and then adds, ‘Hard?’
‘I was not. I was merely trying to invoke a sense of calm,’ I reply, trying not to laugh.
‘Well, next time you want to relax, pop up here for a camomile tea. Very soothing.’ Sam shakes her head. ‘Come on.’ She helps me out of the sofa. ‘Soo, what do you think of my Valentine theme?’ she says, letting go of me and running a hand over the back of the sofa.
‘I love it. And it’s different.’
‘Good. My idea of a decent Valentine’s Day is sex. S-E-X. And plenty of it. I want decadence. I want tease. And a bit of debauchery thrown in for good measure,’ she says, grinning naughtily as she loops her arm through mine. ‘Ooh, hang on.’ She stops still and beckons upwards with her eyes. ‘My favourite is coming up next. Tom Ford. Yes, yes I know he’s gay … but will you just look at him?’ We both stare up at the ceiling for a few seconds. ‘Utter perfection.’
Sam steers me towards one of the train seat booths.
‘Ta dah!’ she says, gesturing towards a three-tiered cake stand crammed with all kinds of delicious gooey-looking cakes next to a big green spotty teapot.
‘Wow,’ I say, giving her a quick hug. ‘You didn’t have to do all this. A vanilla slice would have sufficed.’ She gives me a look.
,’ I attempt and end up sounding like an extra from a dodgy French film. ‘How do you even say it?’ I laugh.
‘That’ll do.’ She grins, picking up the cake stand and offering it to me. ‘So, what’s been going on with you?’ she asks, pouring me a cup of tea. ‘And who’s the man?’ She stops fiddling with the teapot and gives me an inquisitive look.
‘What do you mean,
?’ I feel my cheeks flush.
‘Oh come on. I know that look a mile off. It’s the
same Ready Brek glow you used to get after the end-of-term
disco when one of the boys from St Patrick’s had asked you to slow dance. And we must have only been about twelve at the time.’
‘Sam, you won’t believe the day I’ve had! The Heff appeared and dropped a bombshell and in the next breath he introduces a second bombshell, only this time it’s of the
‘Whoa. Hang on a minute. What do you mean
? God, I can’t believe this has all been going on right below me. How exciting. So, come on, tell all. I want details,’ Sam squeals, and stirs her tea. Even faster now. Her natural blonde corkscrew curls are bobbing around furiously.
‘Well. The Heff announced it this afternoon, during Ciaran and Tina’s engagement toast.’
Whaat? You’re telling me Ciaran got engaged?
Ohmigod. FAINTS. A girl can’t handle so many details all in one go. And why didn’t he tell me?’ she huffs.
‘You mean you don’t know?’
‘No. He bunked off straight after his lunch break, said he had important business to attend to and would I mind? Of course I said it was fine, but he never said a word. Told you so, deffo up to something … and now we know. What’s the ring like? Did you see it? How could you deny me this for a whole afternoon? It’s bad enough he didn’t tell me himself.’ Sam’s puffing for air, she’s practically hyperventilating. Always the romantic.
‘Well, I just assumed he would have mentioned it. Anyway, I’m telling you now. And yes, the ring is huge. Mega.’
‘Oh I bet it is. I can’t imagine she would have settled for a Carrington’s chip.’ I pull a face. ‘No offence,’ Sam adds, holding her teacup in mid-air. ‘Every time she comes in here she manages to find a way to mention Ciaran’s inheritance.’ This makes me smile. I can just imagine Tina trying to impress Sam, whose dad is Alfie Palmer, owner of Palmer Estates, one of the biggest estate agents in the country. Sam told me Tina practically did a running bodyslam at Alfie when he turned up at the café one lunchtime. It took fifteen minutes for Sam to prise Tina away from him.
‘What does Ciaran see in her?’ I ask, running a finger across the top of my vanilla slice and popping it into my mouth, savouring the exquisite taste of the almond-flavoured icing. Heaven.
‘Oh I don’t know. I’ve tried probing him and he reckons they have a lot in common.’
‘Like what? I mean, he’s lovely, with the Irish accent and all that … apart from that finger-gun thing he does.’ We both laugh again.
‘Oh that’s just a front,’ Sam says. ‘Underneath it all he’s a kind, sweet guy.’
‘I know, I’m only joking. But it doesn’t change the fact that he’s nice and … well … she isn’t.’ I shrug.
‘I know, but he says she’s old-fashioned and wants to be married as soon as possible. And you know how keen he is to be hitched; in fact at one point I thought he might fancy you – he seems to spend an awful lot of time hanging around on your floor,’ Sam says, draining her tea before pouring more.
‘Don’t be daft,’ I say, brushing the notion aside. ‘But it doesn’t make sense to me. Most men, or certainly the ones I meet, would run a mile at the mere glimmer of a bridezilla.’
‘I think he feels left out. His family are all married with kids, so I suppose he just wants to fit in. He said every time he goes home his parents get excited, thinking an announcement is coming or, better still, he’ll have a bride in tow. Remember, he comes from a tiny village on the southern coast of Ireland. Things are different there. More traditional. Men have wives and children, that’s how it is. Anyway, enough of all that, I’ll quiz him in the morning. Tell me more about the announcement. No tell me about the
bombshell first. That sounds far more exciting.’
‘Well, he’s called Tom Rossi,’ I say, lingering on his name.
‘Mmm … dreamy sounding,’ Sam interrupts.
‘He’s dark, tall, and – well, I know it sounds like a cliché – but he is
to die for
Sam. He’s very charming, in a proper gentlemanly Colin Firth way, but I’d say he’s probably part Italian or maybe Spanish even. Either way he’s got that raunchy Mediterranean thing going on too.’ I feel breathless and giddy just thinking about him.
‘Cor! He sounds lush. I can’t wait to get a peek of him. Maybe he’ll come up for a coffee and a nice messy cream bun.’ We both sit for a moment and imagine watching him lick his fingers clean, or better still … doing it for him. ‘Who is he then?’
‘I’m not sure. He starts on Monday, that’s all I know so far.’
‘What about James?’
‘Shush,’ I whisper, quickly, glancing around the café. ‘Somebody might hear you.’
‘Sorry, but it’s obvious he’s keen,’ she replies in a hushed voice, even though there’s nobody else here.
‘Hmm, you know he’s been acting very strange recently.’
‘Really! What kind of strange?’ Sam asks, eagerly.
‘I’m not sure … just, kind of extra-attentive, you know, more so than he usually is.’
‘Ohmigod, I knew it. He wants you big time,’ she squeals, banging her cup down on the saucer.
‘Will you stop it,’ I reply, trying not to smile.
‘Oh you’re such a spoilsport.’
‘Please.’ I pull a face.
‘OK. If you insist.’ She sticks her tongue out. ‘So, tell me about the other bombshell instead then?’
‘Well that’s the bad news I’ve had today. The Heff came charging into the staff canteen, slap bang in the middle of the engagement announcement, and said we’re entering a terminal decline and as of today everything changes.’
‘So what does that mean then? Your job’s safe though, isn’t it? I mean, they’re not going to get rid of you. You’re a fantastic sales assistant. Everyone knows that, and all the regulars love you. I’m always overhearing them saying how helpful and kind you are.’ Sam stops licking cake from her fingers and looks me in the eye.