Alison stood in front her stove, waiting for the pastry cases for the vol-au vents to reach golden perfection before she took them out. While she waited, she beat some double- thick cream into the cheesecake mixture and put it in the fridge for later.
Then she turned her attention to her feet: which shoes to wear with the blue silk outfit she’d bought for The Interview. Horribly expensive, but the trim little box pleats and belted waist said “serious and career minded.” She decided her old navy heels would do, once she’d polished them.
Ever since she’d seen the advert for a receptionist at the Harcourt Hotel, home- from- home for the rich and famous, she was sure this job was meant for her. She’d made it through the first round of applications and was on a short list of three.
Alison could see her glamorous future rolling out in technicolour: registering important guests, directing them to their suites and confidently advising them on the best restaurants in town. ‘Client liaison’ it was called and she knew she’d be good at that..
“I suppose I couldn’t persuade you to join me for dinner?” purred Tom Cruise, leaning enticingly over her reservation book, “Even the perfect receptionist has to eat sometime.”
As she gazed coolly into Tom’s green- flecked eyes he added, ”At a table for two in a private room?”
It could happen.
The oven pinged obligingly and she removed the fragrant pastry shells, carefully transferring them to the wire tray to cool. The chopped chicken breasts with ginger and lime sauce stood ready to be spooned in, and as soon as she was back from the interview she planned to take the pastries and cheesecake round to Moira for her dinner party that evening. The mushroom and smoked mussel soup was already in the container and she’d made the lamb curry the evening before, to give the flavours time to meld together deliciously.
She was always surprised that so many of her friends found cooking difficult and were so pathetically grateful for her help.
“Why not go into catering, Alison?” Moira had said, “You’re a natural born cook.”
But she preferred the security of a salary cheque at the end of the month. If she got it right this morning, her days would be spent behind the wide marble front desk of the Harcourt Hotel.
Alison badly needed this job. Five weeks without work was more than she’d bargained for when she’d impulsively resigned from the dry-cleaning shop to follow the sun. Two weeks in Greece had left her with a beautiful tan but a savings account that was running dangerously low.
It was pouring with rain as she set off, and with the pavement under water just outside her gate, she was forced to detour onto the street. Trying not to wet her shoes, she stepped gingerly across the gutter that was streaming with water.
As she did so, a little red car sped around the corner, straight through a deep puddle and sent up a great whoosh of dirty water. In one icy second, Alison was drenched to the skin. And as she jumped back, her heel caught on something and she sat down hard in the gutter.
This can’t be happening, she thought, scrambling slowly and painfully to her feet. Not today.
“I say, I’m terribly sorry. Are you alright?”
It was the driver of the car, concern written all over his face.
“No, I’m NOT alright,” she snapped furiously, “Thanks to you. How could you go through that puddle as such a speed? Look at me! I’m a disaster!”
The suspicion of a grin increased her fury.
“I’m on my way to an interview. Now I’ve probably lost the best job I was ever going to get.”
“I feel terrible about this,” he said sincerely, helping her up. “The least I can do is take you home to get a change of clothes.”
“I haven’t got a change of clothes. This is my interview outfit you – you idiot. I can’t apply for a job at the Harcourt Hotel in a pair of jeans!”
“The Harcourt? That’s a coincidence; I work in the kitchen there. What’s the interview for?”
“It was for receptionist” she said pointedly. “But now you’ve totally ruined my chances, you- you dish-washer.”
His mouth twitched.
“Oh, that’s right, I heard they were looking for someone. Look, I know the hotel housekeeper, and she could dry everything and have you looking good as new.”
“How? My dress is filthy and wet, and my hair…”
“Jump in,” he said firmly, opening the passenger door. “Mrs Nichols can work miracles.”
She glared at him.
“I don’t even know your name.”
“Sorry.” He held out his hand, which was surprisingly firm and warm.
She sank squishily into the front seat.
“Look on the bright side,” said Rick, “You’re very lucky I didn’t run you over.”
Alison cheered up and looked critically at her driver. He had a thin, humorous face and a gold earring gleamed under his dark hair which curled over his collar and added to his slightly raffish look.. Maybe I was lucky after all, she thought, I’ll definitely get to know him better when I’m working there. On the other hand – front office personnel and the kitchen staff? They might not allow it.
Rick ignored the splendid curving drive up to the pillared entrance of the Harcourt Hotel and parked around the back.
“Staff entrance,” he smiled. “Not quite as grand, is it?”
It certainly wasn’t. The lobby smelled of wet boots and badly need a coat of paint. From a room off to the left came a crashing of pots and impatient, raised voices.
“The kitchen,” he explained, ”Things get a bit hectic here at this time of day, they’re just preparing lunch.”
Lured by the smell of rosemary and something else she couldn’t quite identify, Alison peered around the door. About ten men with white coats and funny hats, intent on stirring and chopping, didn’t look up from their work.
“Venison for lunch?” she enquired, sniffing appreciatively.
“Right.” Rick stared. “You’ve got a good nose.”
“Venison with rosemary sauce- Nigella Lawson!” she exclaimed.
“Clement Freud, actually.”
“Ah, but she took it from his book on Irish cuisine and changed it a lot. Put in the juniper berries and used a lot more wine. It’s the sauce that makes that dish, don’t you think?”
She grinned at his puzzled face.
“I like to cook.” she said simply, “Now, where’s that miracle worker of yours?”
He led Alison through a maze of dark, narrow passages to the small housekeeper’s room on the first floor, where a motherly person was counting towels..
“Mrs Nichols, my friend Alison needs some help,” said Rick. “She’s a bit wet.”
“Caught in a shower, were you dear? Might take more than a miracle, but let’s see what we can do,” said Mrs Nichols, heaving herself off the stool. “Off you go, Mr Williams.”
Alison wrapped herself in a bath towel, watching as Mrs Nichols sponged and ironed her skirt and top. She rubbed her hair dry in front of a heater and started to relax. She still had five minutes before her interview.
“Got a special date, have you dear?”
“I’m applying for the job as receptionist here,” said Alison.
“That’s nice. If you can handle those demanding guests.”
“I’ll manage,” she said, thinking of Hugh Grant walking up to her desk, looking lost, needing her help. Hugh Grant, demanding? Never. “Is my skirt dry yet, do you think?”
“It’ll do,” said Mrs Nichols, “I’ve got most of the mud off. And this little tear at the back won’t show at all.”
“You’re a darling, thank you so much. Now, how do I get to the manager’s office?”
“Turn left at the end of the passage, and through the glass door,” said Mrs Nichols. “Good luck.”
Alison fingered her lucky rabbits foot nestling inside her bag. “I’ll be okay,” she said confidently.
There was no mirror in the housekeeper’s room, but she dressed hurriedly, twisted her hair into a knot on top and hoped for the best.
The Harcourt Hotel she recognised started on the other side of the glass door. A thick blue carpet paved the way across the foyer to the marble-topped reception desk, where a smartly dressed woman was seated.
As Alison approached, she looked up and her bland expression changed to one of distaste.
“Yes? Can I help you?” her icy voice had undercurrents of however, I doubt it.
“I have an appointment with Mr Adams, the manager. Um..about the job.”
Get a grip, girl, where’s your confidence, she thought crossly. . Then she caught sight of her reflection in a big gold-framed mirror and clutched the edge of the desk in horror.
Her blue skirt, which had seemed so right that morning, no longer said ‘serious and career minded’. It had shrunk so badly it now screamed ‘cheap and nasty’ and the polka- dot top cheekily bared her beautifully tanned midriff for all to see. The cute little navel ring that had seemed such fun on the beach at Rhodos twinkled maliciously. Not the Harcourt Hotel style at all.
“I – it’s all right, I’ll phone him later,” mumbled Alison, and she turned and dashed blindly back through the glass doors to the staff quarters
She took her treacherous rabbit’s foot out of her bag and hurled it angrily into the corner, then took a deep breath and re-traced her steps down the passage. She was about to walk past the kitchen when Rick appeared.
“That was quick,” he said,”How’d it go?”
“It didn’t. I’m out of here.” She yanked angrily at her skirt. “How could I possibly see the manager looking like this?”
“That’s a very fetching frill,” he grinned. “Old man Adams would have loved it. But I take your point. Look, at the very least, I owe you a coffee and I’d like a word with you.”
He took her arm and led her into a small sitting room furnished with comfy old arms chairs.
“Staff lounge, “ he said “And quite good coffee.”
She sat down while Rick poured them each a cup.
“Shouldn’t you be toiling in the kitchen?” she snapped.
“Oh, I’m allowed a minute or two off,” he smiled. “Tell me, wouldn’t you rather be cooking than listening to complaints all day long?”
“Yes, of course, but there’s the small matter of the rent.”
“Okay, now don’t think I’m crazy, but what sauce would you use if you were preparing whiting?”
“I’d try a Maltaise,” she answered promptly. “But I’d use fresh Seville orange juice instead of lemon. It’s subtler and works wonderfully with whiting.”
“And what would you do to cheer up roast lamb?”
“A sauce? Not boring old mint. Okay, so let’s say you’ve roasted it with lashings of fresh rosemary and slivers of garlic…hmm, maybe a caper sauce? With that flat-leafed parsley and loads of black pepper. And stir in some thick cream just before you serve it.”
She swallowed hungrily. Breakfast seemed a long time ago. “Why do you ask?”
“You want a job, right? And you obviously know your way around a kitchen. How would you like to start as assistant to the saucier here?”
“He’s the chef who makes the sauces. Monsieur Reynard. He’s nearly seventy and desperately needs an assistant. I think you’d be very good. You’re creative.”
Alison stared at Rick. Tom Cruise wasn’t ever going to find his way down that gloomy passage. On the other hand, working with this totally gorgeous man every day could have its attractions. And she did love to cook.
“Great perks, too,” he added. “Good staff lunches. On-the-job training from one of the best sauciers in the country. You can wear jeans to work every day if you want, although with legs like yours, that’d be a crime.”
“Cheeky. So what are you, then? You don’t wash dishes.”
“I never said I did. I’m the Executive Chef. So I do the hiring and I think you’d be just what I’m looking for.”
Exactly what I was thinking about you, she thought, then blushed crimson in case he could read her mind.
“You’d be my boss?”
“Not exactly, you’d be answerable to Monsieur Reynard. I don’t interfere in his department.”
Yessss! She thought, looking into his deep brown eyes with a little shiver of anticipation. Dating the boss is never a good idea.