Oh-So-Sensible Secretary / Housekeeper's Happy-Ever-After. Jessica Hart
If the coffee and the cakes hadn’t been so good, or if Lucia hadn’t been so efficient, Otto’s would have closed long ago. As it was, she and the café had become something of a local institution.
‘Next!’ she snarled as we made it to the top of the queue, and then she caught sight of me and smiled—a sight so rare that the executives now helping themselves to sugar stared in disbelief.
‘Back again, cara?’ she called, banging out old coffee grounds from the espresso machine. ‘Your usual?’
‘Yes, thanks, Lucia.’ I smiled back at her, and then glanced at Phin, who was watching me with an oddly arrested expression. ‘And…?’ I prompted him.
‘Americano for me,’ he supplied quickly, before Lucia got impatient with him. ‘No milk.’
‘Why are you looking at me like that?’ I asked Phin as I slid onto a shiny plastic banquette. Otto’s wasn’t big on style.
‘I’m curious,’ he said, transferring the cups to the table and pushing the tray aside.
‘Perhaps intrigued is a better word,’ said Phin. ‘You know, I’ve dodged guerrillas in South America, I’ve been charged at by a rhino and dangled by a rope over a thousand-foot crevasse, but I found Lucia pretty scary. She had every single person in that queue intimidated, but you she calls cara. What’s that about?’
‘Oh, nothing,’ I said, making patterns in the cappuccino froth with my teaspoon. ‘I wrote her a note once, that was all.’
‘What sort of note?’
‘I noticed that she wasn’t here one day, mainly because the queue doesn’t move nearly as fast when she’s not around. I asked why not, and she told me she’d had to go back to Italy because her father had died. I wrote her a short note, just to say that I was sorry. It wasn’t a big deal,’ I muttered. I was rather embarrassed by the way Lucia had never forgotten it.
Phin looked at me thoughtfully. ‘That was a kind thing to do.’
Feeling awkward, I sipped at my coffee. ‘I didn’t do much,’ I said. ‘Anyone can write a note.’
‘But only you did.’
He picked up his doughnut and took a big bite while I watched enviously. My mouth was watering, and I was feeling quite light-headed with the lack of sugar.
‘Want a bit?’ he asked, offering the plate.
I flushed at the thought that he had noticed me staring. ‘No…thank you,’ I said primly.
‘Sure? It’s very good.’
I knew it was good. That was the trouble. ‘I’m sure.’
‘Suit yourself.’ Phin shrugged, and finished the doughnut with unnecessary relish.
The more he enjoyed it, the crosser I got. What sort of boss was this, who dragged you out to coffee, tried to force-feed you doughnuts and then tortured you by eating them in front of you?
Scowling, I buried my face in my cappuccino.
‘So, Summer Curtis,’ he said, brushing sugar from his fingers at last. ‘Tell me about yourself.’
It sounded like an interview question, so I sat up straighter and composed myself. ‘Well, I’ve been working for Gibson & Grieve for five years now, the last three as assistant to the Chief Executive’s PA—’ I began, but Phin held up both hands.
‘I don’t need to know how many A levels you’ve got or where you’ve worked,’ he said. ‘I’m sure Lex wouldn’t have appointed you if he didn’t trust you absolutely. I’m more interested in finding out what makes you tick. If you’re going to be my personal assistant I think we should get to know each other personally, and your work experience won’t tell me anything I really need to know.’
‘Like what?’ I asked, disconcerted.
Phin sat back against the banquette and eyed me thoughtfully. ‘Like your pet peeves, for instance. What really irritates you?’
‘How long have you got?’ I asked. ‘Sniffing. Jiggling. Mess. Smiley faces made out of punctuation marks. Phrases like “Ah…bless…” or “I love her to bits, but…” Men who sit on the tube with their legs wide apart. Unpunctuality. Sloppy spelling and misuse of the apostrophe—that’s a big one for me.’ I paused, aware that I might have been getting a bit carried away. ‘Do you want me to go on?’
‘I think I might be getting the picture,’ he said, his mouth twitching.
‘I’m a bit of a perfectionist.’
‘So I gathered.’ I could tell he was trying not to laugh, and I was beginning to regret being so honest.
‘You did ask,’ I pointed out defensively.
‘I did. Maybe I should have asked you what you do like.’
‘I like my job.’
‘Being a secretary?’
I nodded. ‘Organisations like Gibson & Grieve don’t work unless executives have proper administrative back-up. I like organising things, checking details, pulling everything together. I like making sure everything is in its right place. That’s why I like filing. I find it satisfying.’
Phin didn’t say anything. He just looked at me across the table.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said, putting up my chin. ‘I do. Shoot me.’
He grinned at that. ‘So…an unexpectedly kind, nitpicking perfectionist with an irrational prejudice against poor punctuation and a bizarre attachment to filing. I think we’re getting somewhere. What else do I need to know about you?’
‘Nothing? There must be more than that.’
I drank my coffee, unaccountably flustered. I was more thrown than I wanted to admit by the blueness of his eyes, by that lazy smile and the sheer vitality of his presence. There was a whole table between us, but I was finding it hard to breathe.
‘I really don’t know what you want me to tell you,’ I said. ‘I’m twenty-six, I share a flat in south London with a friend, and my life is the exact opposite of yours.’
His eyes gleamed at that, and he leant forward. ‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, you come from a wealthy family whose stores are a household name,’ I pointed out. ‘You make television programmes doing the kind of things the rest of us would never dare to do, and when you’re not skiing down a glacier or hacking through a jungle you’re at all the A-list parties—usually with a beautiful girl on your arm. The closest I get to an A-list party is reading about one in Glitz, and I’d rather stick pins in my eyes than set foot in a rainforest. We don’t have a single thing in common.’
‘You can’t say that,’ Phin objected. ‘You don’t really know anything about me.’
‘I feel as if I do,’ I told him. ‘My flatmate, Anne, is your biggest fan, and after listening to her talk about you for the past two years I could take a quiz on you myself.’ I pushed my empty cup aside. ‘Go on—ask me. Anything,’ I offered largely, and even gave him an example. ‘What’s your latest girlfriend called?’
A smile was tugging at the corner of Phin’s mouth. ‘You tell me,’ he said.
‘Jewel,’ I said triumphantly. ‘Jewel Stevens. She’s an actress, and when you went to some awards ceremony last week she wore a red dress that had Anne weeping with envy.’
‘But not you?’
‘I think it would have looked classier in black,’ I said, and Phin laughed.
‘I’m impressed. Clearly I don’t need