A Proposal From The Italian Count. Lucy Gordon
hotel was pleasantly luxurious. He booked a room for the night, then went out to explore.
Almost at once he saw a corner shop with its sign proclaiming ‘Benton’s Market’. He took a deep breath, clenching his fists, vowing not to lose his nerve now.
Nearby was a small café, with tables outside. He found a seat, ordered some coffee and took out the photograph of Benton. From this angle he could see through the shop windows clearly enough to know if the man was there.
But time passed and there was no sign of him—only a young woman arranging stock in the main window. Much of it was already in place, but she was intent on reorganising it, giving it all her concentration.
He admired the woman’s dedication and artistic flair. He would value such an employee himself, to work in the department store he owned and managed in Rome.
Suddenly he tensed as a man appeared from the rear of the shop. Could this be Benton? But he looked nothing like the picture. His face was thin and severe. His manner to the woman suggested ill temper. When he spoke Vittorio could just make out the words through the open door.
‘Must you waste time faffing about over this? There’s a pile of stuff at the back needs unpacking.’
‘But I thought we agreed—’ she began to say.
‘Don’t argue. Just do as I tell you. Get going.’
Looking exasperated, she retreated to the back of the shop.
Vittorio approached the shop, entering with the air of an eager customer.
‘I’d like to buy some apples,’ he said.
‘We’ve got some here,’ the man said. ‘No—wait. They were over there. What has that stupid woman done with them?’
‘I’d also like to talk to Mr Benton, please.’
The man glanced up, scowling. ‘What do you want with him?’ His tone became suspicious. ‘You’re not another debt collector, are you?’
‘No, it’s a personal matter.’
‘Well, you can’t see him. He’s dead.’
‘Dead?’ Vittorio froze, feeling as though he’d heard a thunderclap. ‘When?’
‘A year ago. But his daughter still works here.’
‘Was that her I saw? Can I talk to her?’
‘You can, but not just yet. She’s got work to do. You’ll have to wait until she’s finished for the day.’
Feeling depressed, Vittorio departed. Returning to the café he settled again to watch the shop, trying to get his thoughts in order. Everything he’d planned was in a shambles. He must talk to Benton’s daughter and just hope that she was a sensible woman who would accept financial compensation and let the matter end.
Throughout the afternoon he saw many customers go into the shop. The young woman dealt with them efficiently, always smiling and friendly. Every one of them bought something from her.
Benton’s daughter was a natural saleswoman, it seemed.
He stayed there for four hours. He read the paper and then busied himself sending and receiving emails from his smartphone. The frustration of waiting was hard to endure but he forced himself. So much depended on this.
* * *
Inside the shop Jackie was working hard. Often she glanced out of the window, puzzled to see that the strange man was still there, sitting outside the café. She concluded that he must be a tourist, albeit a very well dressed one!
At last it was closing time. As she was preparing to leave, Rik arrived.
‘Don’t go yet,’ he said, scowling. ‘We need to have a talk about making new orders.’
‘But I can’t stay,’ she protested. She gave him a wry smile, saying, ‘And, let’s face it, you don’t pay me enough to make me want to do overtime.’
‘Don’t be impertinent. I pay you a fair wage. If you did better I might pay you more.’
‘It’s not my fault profits are low,’ she said indignantly. ‘I don’t think you’re buying enough of the right stock.’
‘And I don’t think you’re making a big enough effort,’ he said coldly.
In his anger he spoke with a raised voice.
Vittorio, a few feet away, heard him through the open door. He rose and headed for the shop, from where Rik’s grouchy voice could still be heard.
‘I’m not asking. I’m telling you to stay where you are so we can discuss these orders.’
‘No!’ Jackie said furiously.
Once before she’d agreed to this demand and it had stretched to two hours, without so much as a penny being added to her wages.
‘Now, look, Jackie—’
‘We can talk tomorrow,’ she said desperately.
Unable to bear any more, she fled blindly—and collided with a man entering through the front door. She began to fall, nearly taking him down with her.
‘I’m sorry—’ she gasped.
‘No, I’m sorry,’ Vittorio said, holding her firmly.
‘Come back here,’ Rik snapped, reaching out to take her arm in a fierce grip.
‘Let me go!’ she cried.
‘I’ll let you go when you do what you’re paid to do.’
The last word ended on a yelp that burst from him at the feel of Vittorio’s hand gripping his wrist.
‘Let her go,’ ordered Vittorio.
‘Who the hell do you think you are?’ Rik wailed.
‘I said let her go, and you’d better do so if you know what’s good for you.’ Vittorio’s voice was harsh and unrelenting.
Jackie felt Rik’s painful grip on her arm loosen, until she was able to free herself.
A glance back at Rik showed he was scowling. She hurried away, following Vittorio, who put his arm protectively around her.
‘Sorry about that,’ he said. ‘I didn’t mean to get you in trouble with your boss.’
‘Don’t blame yourself.’ She sighed. ‘He’s always like that.’
‘I’m afraid I tripped you.’
‘No, I tripped you. I wasn’t looking where I was going.’
‘But you stumbled. Are you sure you aren’t hurt? I thought you might have twisted your ankle.’
‘Just a little.’
‘You should sit down. Let’s go into the café.’
Once inside, he took her to a table in the corner, summoned the waiter and ordered coffee. When it was served he took a deep breath.
‘My name’s Jacqueline Benton. People call me Jackie.’
‘You called me signorina. Are you Italian?’ She sounded hopeful.
‘Yes, my name is Vittorio.’
She seemed pleased at the discovery. Smiling, she offered her hand. ‘Buon giorno, Vittorio.’
‘Buon giorno, Jackie.’
‘I really thank you for what you did—rescuing me from Rik.’
‘He must be a nightmare to work for. But I guess you’re out of a job now.’