Authors: Janet Woods
Tags: #Contemporary Romantic Comedy
She felt pleased with herself until he murmured, ‘Cost it out and run it by me.’
‘Who else? It’s your idea.’
She thought about it for a moment, then shook her head. ‘I’m working in the kitchen from Monday.’
‘The functions coordinator would be a nicer occupation, wouldn’t it?’
‘I guess.’ A flicker of excitement ran through her. ‘I don’t know anything about costing things out.’
‘Then it’s about time you learned. Just write down a plan of what you think is needed, find out the cost and let me have it by Monday evening. I’ll go through it with you.’
Her eyes widened. ‘That soon?’
‘You’re now a member of the staff, and I expect my staff to work. There’s a small office off the large function room. I’ll get it cleaned out. That can be your office. I’ll expect things to be up and running within the month.’
He could see she liked the idea - and if she didn’t work in the kitchen she’d have broken their agreement. But the time to tell her that when he asked her to arrange their own wedding.
Her own office! Darcie Channing, functions coordinator
Then she suddenly remembered. ‘Sorry, Leon, it will have to wait until next week. I’m not going to play your game.’
He was all transparent innocence. ‘What game?’
‘You know exactly what I’m talking about.’
‘Ah ... that game. Any time you want to play, Darcie ... ’
He considered the faint blush that tinted her creamy skin delicious, her smile almost edible. Her laugh sent goose-bumps racing up his spine.
‘And if I win, Leon, then what?’
‘Then what, indeed, Darcie Channing?’ He took her hand in his and kissed the palm. ‘I guess I’ll have the sexiest kitchen hand in town ... but that won’t change our attraction for each other, will it? I’ll just keep the pressure up until you give in.’
Something he hadn’t bothered to do with Helen, so he couldn’t have been in love. But what did he feel for her?
She couldn’t tell; his eyes were enigmatic. She suddenly wondered - given his background, had Leon ever learned how to give and take love.
As her hand closed around his in an involuntary squeeze - she very much doubted it.
‘I’m sorry, Miss Channing that account has been closed.’
‘But that’s ridiculous,’ she argued. ‘There was a large amount of money paid into it six months ago - and it was a joint account. It couldn’t have been closed without my signature.’
‘Just a moment. I’ll check.’ The moment became a five-minute interlude of
Just as she was beginning to enjoy it the same voice informed her. ‘The account was in one name only; you just had an access card to it. That was canceled when the account was closed. I’m sorry, but we have no record of any transaction taking place.’
Frustrated, she slammed down the receiver and rested her head in her hands. She didn’t want to believe Colin had helped himself to her father’s cash. Yet what other conclusion could she come to?
Okay, so they didn’t hit it off all that well, but was she being fair? She’d never considered Colin to be dishonest - just a pain in the neck. No, that wasn’t right, she thought. It wasn’t my neck. He said she was the pain in his neck, and she told him he was a pain in his ...
‘Problems?” Leon said from the doorway.
‘Big problems.’ Was Leon part of this
She stared hard at him. ‘The check from the sale of my father’s property - the one your lawyer assured me had been paid into his account - has disappeared into thin air. In fact, the account has been closed.’
Leon’s smile faded. ‘Bank accounts just doesn’t disappear. There’s probably a simple explanation.’
‘If there is, you’d better let me in on it, Leon.’ She didn’t know who to trust any more, the whole thing had become a nightmare.
His voice became curt, almost unfriendly. ‘Are you accusing me of fraud, Darcie?’
‘No ... yes ... I don’t know. How do I know who’s trustworthy and who isn’t? All I know is you’ve got the deeds to my father’s property and I haven’t got anything.’
His lips curled slightly. ‘You verified the signature. I don’t need to cheat you out of that money. I could buy you a thousand times over and not notice a dent in my pocketbook.’
She met his disdainful gaze with a recklessly furious one of her own. ‘Do you really think you can buy me, Leon?’
He didn’t answer, just stared silently at her for the few moments it took her to realize. She’d taken everything he’d offered her over the past few days, clothes, shelter, food. She’d even agreed to marry him if the kitchen job didn’t suit her.
His voice was honeyed when he spoke. ‘Like you said, I take hostages. I’ll expect you to keep your side of the bargain.’
‘Go to hell. I’d rather starve to death!’
‘I doubt it,’ he drawled, as he turned and strode away, banging the chalet door behind him.
That’s what you think!
Tearing off her fancy clothes she changed into an old pair of jeans and a sweater, then threw all her worldly goods into her suitcase. Blinded by tears she slipped out the back way and headed into the forest with Georgie at her heels.
A couple of hours later, she pushed open the rusty gate in the hedge that had once been her home at Petrel Point. She had nowhere else to go.
There was a cement pad on the block where she and her father had once lived, pallets of bricks lined one side of the hedge - Leon Price’s bricks for Leon Price’s dream home.
It was going to be a big house, she thought as she wandered into the middle of it. The place she’d grown up in would have taken up a small portion in the middle. She sat on the cold gray cement. This must have been poured when they were in Perth. It was hardly set, the concrete still damp. No wonder he’d wanted her out of the way.
She carved her name in the pad with the house key she took from her bag, knowing it was an empty gesture rather than a claim for possession, for the key no longer had a lock to fit in.
She didn’t know how long she sat there wondering what she could do, or where she could go. Perhaps her mother would send her the fare to England if she asked. But her mother wasn’t financially well off, and although Darcie had quite liked England, the thought of leaving Australia to live in a cold climate was unappealing.
The sound of the postman’s motor bike suddenly snapped her out of her reverie. It struck her as odd that he should be delivering mail to a house that no longer existed - to a man who no longer existed. When she heard him depart, she collected the letters from the box set in the hedge and took them down to the beach. There was a final demand for an unpaid electricity bill from a debt collection agency - two other official looking letters that probably demanded more of the same. A postcard from England she’d sent six months ago with a ‘wish you were here’ message on it from herself mocked her.
She turned a faded blue airmail envelope over in her hand, a letter to herself from her father - dated just before he died - that had been returned from England with ‘address unknown’ stamped on it He’d addressed it to Makepeace Street instead of Makapin Road. She managed a watery grin. He must have been reading Thackeray. Probably
- his favorite book.
She held the letter against her cheek for a second or two, then under her nose, trying without success to find some lingering essence of her father on it. Fingers trembling, she inserted her nail under the flap and ripped it open.
* * * *
It was almost sunset when Leon found her, sitting on the beach staring out to sea. A cold wind blew off the water but she seemed oblivious to it, though her body was racked with shivers.
Georgie came bounding up to him, tail eagerly wagging, to thrust his nose hungrily into his hand.
‘Darcie. Are you all right?’
She didn’t look up, didn’t indicate by even a flicker of an eyelid that she’d heard him.
He dropped to his haunches in front of her and taking her cold hands in his, said softly. ‘Darcie, answer me.’
There was a pale, set look to her face. The eyes that turned his way were infinitely sad as she whispered. ‘I received a letter from my father today. He sounded so happy.’
Gently he pulled her to her feet and into his arms. ‘I’ve been looking for you all day.’
‘I had nowhere to go. I never imagined when I went to England that I’d come back to nothing.’ Her eyes seemed bewildered when they met his. ‘Do you know what he said?’
‘No ... tell me.’
‘I’m doing this for you. We’ll lead a new life in Sydney. You won’t be so isolated there. You’ll meet people of your own age, perhaps fall in love and get married.’ Her voice broke and tears flooded her eyes as she leaned against his chest for comfort. ‘He did it for me. Didn’t he know places don’t isolate you? It’s not having someone to love that does that. I’ve never felt so lonely in my life as I do now.’
‘I know.’ Leon did know ... he knew only too well. Picking up her suitcase he urged her towards the car. ‘Come on, let’s go home.’
‘I have no home.’
‘Yes you have. It’s ... with me.’
Giving an odd, twisted smile, she gazed up at him then. ‘Ah, yes ... I made a bargain with you, didn’t I? Heads you win, tails I lose. Which side of the coin did you chose, Leon?’
‘Let’s talk about this later.’ He allowed Georgie to bound into the car, then settled her into the passenger seat and secured her belt. ‘Have you eaten today? You must be starving.’
‘Not starving, just empty. Stop playing nursemaid, Leon. Let’s talk about it now. My father would be pleased that I got such a good catch.’
Being categorized as a commodity was uncomfortable for Leon. She knew where to prod even when she was down for the count. I could buy and sell you a thousand times over he’d said, and he closed his eyes for a second, experiencing shame. Though it went against the grain, he had to give her some breathing space.
‘The bargain is off. I won’t hold you to it.’
‘But I intend to hold
to it,’ she said quietly. ‘I intend to do my best in the kitchen ... but if I fail, as you seem to think, then I’ll become your wife.’
and rent your clothes and put on sackcloth with ashes?
‘Don’t spout the bible at me.’ Her eyes were sparking with anger as they met his. ‘I have nothing to lose, do I? But I warn you. Leon, don’t think you’re going to get a subservient little woman tied to the kitchen sink - and from now on ... you can sew your own damned buttons on your shirts.’
This was one contrary woman! What did she imagine she’d be doing in the kitchen - and how did his shirt buttons get into the conversation?
He found it hard to suppress a grin. A little goading worked wonders. She was snapping out of it fast, coming after him with her gloves off.
, he could handle.
‘Perish the thought,’ he murmured, vowing he’d make her fall in love with him if it was the last thing he did!
* * * *
Darcie hadn’t known what was expected of her in the kitchen - but this huge pile of onions to peel and chop wasn’t it. Eyes streaming with tears she wiped them for the hundredth time, blew her nose, washed her hands and picked up another onion. Her fingers were stained yellow from them, as if she was a chain smoker.
‘Do them under water,’ the chef grunted in passing.
Now, he tells her! She threw a glare at his departing back. After the onions came hundreds of carrots - then a million tiny potatoes.
‘Don’t forget to remove the eyes.’
She savagely blinded them all with the point of her knife.
‘Cut the broccoli into florets and put them in soak. When you’ve done that you can have a five minute break before you wash the dishes we’ve used. I’ll need them again.’
Delicious smells began to drift from the stoves and her mouth began to water as she hastily swallowed the remains of a cup of coffee. She’d been up since six and was starving. One hour before lunch - and was she looking forward to it.
‘If you’d put those dishes in to soak it would have made it easier.’
Hasn’t anyone in this kitchen heard of non-stick cooking utensils? She glowered as she scrubbed at the baked on contents of the stainless steel dish. What had the chef been cooking in this, cement?
Two hours later she still hadn’t had lunch and a big pile of plates were stacked next to a monstrous dishwasher.
‘Leave the pans in soak,’ Peter said. ‘We’ll run out of plates if you don’t get a move on.’
Her back creaked as she straightened up. ‘When do we get to eat?’
‘When the lunch rush is over. I’ll show you how to operate the dishwasher.’
At least that was easy. Stack the cutlery and plates in the racks, slide them in, pull down the shining stainless steel hood, then when they were done, slide them out the other end.
She was enveloped in a cloud of warm steam with each wash.
Scrape, stack, wash, stack again. Dry the cutlery by hand while it was warm. Why didn’t people eat with their fingers? She pushed the damp hair out of her eyes and wondered what Georgie was getting up to all by himself.
‘Mister Price would like a grilled fillet steak and a salad.’
Darcie’s mouth began to water as the smell of sizzling steak filled the kitchen and a cloud of blue smoke headed for the extractor fan. Leon liked his steak singed on the outside and rare on the inside.
Be quiet, I refused to think about him that way.
She watched his lunch born away by Jean, who gave her a wondering glance. She imagined him eating it, and silently applauded the chef, who magically turned lumps of unappetizing raw meat, vegetables, powders and spices into delicious, and aromatic works of art. She idly wondered how many steaks came off of a bull while she worked. I took her mind off her hunger.
Two hours later she wearily washed the last pan. The chef had gone off on his well-earned break. Only Peter lingered. ‘I’ll give you a hand if you like. The stove tops have to be wiped over, and the floor cleaned.’