Unbuttoning the Tuscan Tycoon
Frankie pulled Bertha, her sky-blue Kombi van, onto the hard shoulder and surveyed the huge wooden sign above a rather imposing set of gates. They were a tasteful combination of stone and wood, giving them an impression of permanence and prosperity. Of wealth.
They were the kind of gates that knew their purpose.
She wrinkled her nose, tried to blow a raspberry at the needling voice full of censure.
You should be settling on your medical specialty, not gallivanting.
‘I’m not gallivanting!’
Three months, that was all she was asking. Three months.
On cue, her phone rang. Staring at the name on the screen, she was tempted to ignore it. Guilt got the better of her and at the last moment she pressed it to her ear. ‘Mum.’
‘Frankie, you know how worried I am about you and—’
‘Hi, I’m great! How are you?’
There was a pause at the other end.
‘Sorry, Mum, terrible timing. I’ll have to call you back.’
Dropping the phone to the seat beside her, she blinked hard. Why couldn’t her mother just be happy for her? Why couldn’t she tell her to have a lovely holiday? Why—
A fist tightened about her chest squeezing the air from her lungs. Closing her eyes, she concentrated on her breathing.
You have a whole summer in Tuscany.
She didn’t need to choose her medical specialty yet. She didn’t need to know if medicine was her future. She didn’t need to know anything.
Opening her eyes, she straightened. She had time. Nonna had made sure of it. And she had no intention of wasting the gift her grandmother had given her. She’d focus on the here and now.
And the here and now were those gates and that sign.
The sign read Vigna di Riposo—Vineyard of Rest—with carved grapevines bracketing the words. Brass plaques on the gates were etched with fat bunches of grapes. It might look fancy, but an unpretentious warmth threaded through it too.
‘Right.’ She clapped her hands. ‘We’re going to be chilled and laid-back.’ Two words that were completely alien to her, but ones she meant to master over the course of the summer.
Carefree and happy-go-lucky, that was her catchphrase. She was in Tuscany, the beautiful heartland of Italy, and this was dream-come-true stuff. She would relax.
Deep inside, a flicker of excitement began to burn. For the next six weeks she’d be based here at this beautiful vineyard. She’d arrived several weeks before the grapes were due to be harvested, but Senor Silva had said that he would find jobs for her to do prior to the picking—odd jobs like preparing the staff quarters for the mass arrival of the seasonal staff. It all sounded gloriously mindless.
She did a happy dance in her seat. She didn’t have any other responsibilities, wasn’t in charge of making any momentous decisions that would impact other people’s lives, wouldn’t need to make any split-second decisions that could have life and death consequences. Perfection!
In her mind’s eye, she saw herself as a puffy dandelion seed head and the image made her feel light and free. All of Tuscany was her playground for the next three months. She would make the most of it.
Driving through the gates, she pointed Bertha up the gravelled drive. Topping the rise, her jaw dropped at the vista that spread before her. The view looked as if it’d been pulled from the pages of a guidebook.
In the hollow below sat a low-slung building, built of the local honey-coloured stone and accented with the same dark wood as the gates. It would be the main public building where the wine was sold and tastings took place. In the blinding summer sun, its shady interior promised ease and comfort.
Outbuildings stretched off further to her left, but it was the surrounding countryside that held her spellbound. Spreading down the hillside in front of her and along the valley, and up the slope beyond, grapevines marched in lush greenness beneath a perfect blue sky—green and gold throbbed in the air, and things inside of her that had been knotted too tight, began to loosen.
It was a classic Tuscan landscape—beautifully serene—and a sigh that seemed to last forever eased from her lungs.
Pulling Bertha into the visitors’ car park, she gazed her fill, but didn’t switch off the engine. This car park wasn’t for employees. Signor Silva had told her to follow the road around to where she’d find the staff car park, and the seasonal quarters beyond where she’d be able to set up camp in Bertha.
She snapped a picture to send to Audrey before pushing the van into reverse. At the same moment, a man emerged from the shady interior of the building, and made a beeline for her.
The precision of his movements, and the alarming amount of ground those long legs covered, had her blinking. But any alarm she might have felt at having perhaps stepped out of line by stopping to admire the area was quickly overridden by a shock of feminine appreciation.
She swallowed, hard, her throat becoming strangely dry. She and Audrey had joked that Italian men were devastatingly handsome, but she hadn’t expected to be confronted by the most beautiful man she’d ever seen on the first day of arriving at her new job.
The reminder of just how much free time was now hers had her lifting her face to the sun and drawing in a breath of fragrant summer air as she waited for the man to reach her.
Raven-dark hair gleamed rich in the early afternoon sun and dark eyes that looked black from this distance connected with hers, sending a crackle of something through her, like an electrical pulse. He looked oddly familiar as if she’d seen him somewhere before. Was he a film star or some kind of celebrity?
At just over six feet, there wasn’t an ounce of spare flesh on that lean muscular body. Powerful shoulders tapered to lean hips and long, strong thighs. Maybe he was an athlete? Or a dancer? Her knowledge of either was meagre, though, so it didn’t help her identify him. What she did know, was that he moved with an innate grace that had a sigh welling in her chest.
Pick your jaw up off the floor, Frankie.
She managed it just before he reached her door. ‘We’ve been expecting you.’
He spoke perfect English in a thick—and divine—Italian accent, and—
One look at his face told her he wasn’t happy about something. She straightened. ‘Signor Silva? I’m very excited to be here. I hope I’ve not stepped on any toes by stopping to admire all of this. It’s beautiful. I’ll head around to the staff car park now.’
‘I will show you the way.’
He strode around the van and leaped into the passenger seat. His scent—all lemon and sage and sunshine—invaded Bertha’s interior, pulling oxygen out of Frankie’s lungs and replacing it with something that made her head feel light. He pointed the way and, swallowing, she turned Betha in that direction, unable to utter a single sensible syllable. If forced to talk, her words would probably emerge in a gabble of g and b sounds.
Which wasn’t the impression she wanted to make.
Except we’re not worrying about any of that at the moment, are we?
That was right! And it wasn’t like she wanted to impress the man or anything. His beauty had taken her off guard, that’s all. And nobody wanted to look or sound like a fool. Her included. Even with a catchphrase of carefree and happy-go-lucky.
‘Not Signor Silva,’ he said now in that beautiful accent.
Signor Silva was the vineyard’s staff supervisor. He’d said he’d meet her on arrival. She glanced at the man beside her, moistened her lips and swallowed carefully, doing all she could to ensure her voice would work without disgracing her. ‘Then…who are you?’
‘My name is Dante Alberici.’
Dante…? Summoning the research she’d done on Riposo, she sifted through her mind. Alberici…? ‘Oh, my God!’ She swung to him. ‘You own Vigna di Riposo.’ And a large portion of real estate in Tuscany too—including prime sites in Florence. The Alberici Corporation was world-renowned, and Dante Alberici a self-made man. ‘You’re the big boss!’
Careful of incoherent g and b sounds.
‘Please do not run into that wine barrel with your van.’
She reefed her gaze back to the front and negotiated the entrance to a car park demarcated on either side with wine barrels. As the car park was hidden behind several outbuildings, it was clearly meant for staff like her.
‘They might only be for decorative purposes, but I should like them to remain in one piece, yes? And your van too.’
‘Yes, absolutely. That’s definitely what we want. No minor prangs happening here or anything of the sort. No indeedy.’
Shut up, Frankie.
Wincing, she concentrated on parking neatly and safely. She and Bertha were still getting used to each other and she had no intention of disgracing herself in front of this impossibly perfect man.
‘You are surprised to see me.’
It was a statement, not a question, but she figured he still expected an answer. ‘I thought you’d delegate staff to a manager or supervisor.’
‘Ah, but this project is one that is very dear to my heart. I wish to be involved in all of its aspects.’
Okay. So the harvest meant a lot to him. She switched off Bertha’s engine. Was he in the process of making a new wine or—?
Yours is not to reason why.
That was right! Carefree and happy-go-lucky, that was her. She sent him her widest smile. ‘That’s very admirable.’
‘Not admirable, necessary.’ He didn’t smile back. ‘Now come with me.’
Giving her no time to reply, he was out of Bertha and striding towards a side entrance of the main building before she’d even pushed open her door. She had to run to catch up with him.
‘There is not much time for you to survey the equipment and give us a list of anything additional you might need, but I do have suppliers on standby.’
Equipment? For the harvest? Surely all she needed was a bucket and gloves. And probably some secateurs or sharp scissors or something. And bug spray. And sunscreen. And as she’d bought those last two with her…
She glanced at him. Noted the way his lips pressed together, the tension in his jaw and shoulders. He was cross. With her. And trying not to show it. What on earth had she done to disturb his peace of mind?
Lifting her chin, she loosened hands that had started to clench. She had no intention of letting him disturb her peace. She was going to be Zen. Very Zen.
But she wasn’t Zen enough to contain a gasp when he led her around a corner and she found herself at the back of the main complex in an amazing dining area. She pulled to a halt. ‘That view!’
From floor-to-ceiling windows, the undulating valley of lush gold greenness spread before her. The neat rows of grapevines were prolific, rich and somehow soothing. In the middle distance a river sparkled silver, and a line of cypresses stood tall and proud. The sky was a deep true blue with a few well-placed fluffy clouds to highlight the depth of all that blue and green.
Clasping her hands beneath her chin, she moved to the windows until her nose almost touched the glass. In a few weeks’ time she’d be on one of those hillsides, picking grapes…part of that landscape. Oh, Nonna, what an adventure.
‘You approve, yes?’
‘Approve? Signor Alberici, it’s sublime.’
‘You may call me Dante.’
He stared at the view too, and for a brief moment those broad shoulders unhitched. ‘It is a very pleasing picture for the eye. I think our diners will be most pleased.’
She pointed. ‘The terrace is going to be the place to be.’
Tables sat on honey-coloured pavers, and above them a lush green vine wound around a wooden pergola. And spread before them was that view. Dante folded his arms and smiled. Her breath did a funny little one-two in her chest. Talk about a pleasing picture for the eye! He should smile more—a whole lot more.
‘Your words are music to my ears.’ He clapped his hands and made an abrupt about turn. ‘Come with me to survey your domain.’
She pointed back towards the grapevines. Weren’t they her domain? But he was already striding away, and she had to trot to catch up with him. Perhaps the odd-jobbing started right now.
He pushed through a set of swinging doors and then gestured with a flourish. ‘No expense has been spared. I am hoping you will work much magic here and give my restaurant a reputation to be proud of.’
Her shoulders inched up towards her ears. Who exactly did he think she was? ‘Um…Dante…’ Actually, on second thoughts, she doubted he’d invite a lowly grape picker to call him by his first name. ‘Signor Alberici, I think there’s been some mistake. I—’
That gaze snapped back to hers, dark brows lowering over flashing eyes crackling with tension, and carefree and happy-go-lucky fled. ‘We created this kitchen to your specifications!’ He stabbed a finger in the air. ‘What is wrong with it? What fault do you find?’
She held her hands up—conciliatory and mollifying. It had sometimes worked on frantic patients at the hospital. ‘The kitchen is absolute perfection. The thing is—’
‘We have a problem, Dante!’ The kitchen doors swung open as a man with an American accent came tearing through them. ‘Eleanora Toussaint has done a bunk. She’s just accepted a position with a Michelin-starred restaurant in Tokyo. She flies out there this afternoon.’
‘No, she’s here! She—’
He swung back to Frankie, who grimaced and shrugged an apology. With a face as dark as the devil’s, he swung back to the other man. ‘Ring her now and tell her I will sue her if she does not show up as arranged.’
‘I could do that.’
Up close she could see the other man was probably a decade older than Dante.
‘Except, as she never actually signed the contract, a fact she just pointed out to me, I’m afraid it would be something of an empty threat.’
‘Why did you not make sure it was signed!’
‘Because you told me you wanted to take care of it personally yourself.’
A flurry of rapid-fire Italian left Dante’s perfect lips—oaths and curses directed at both himself and Eleanora. He stomped around the kitchen island, waving his arms above his head, as if he couldn’t contain his outrage and frustration.
The older man’s eyes widened, and Frankie swallowed. She really didn’t belong here. Time to tiptoe out, find Signor Silva, get her work instructions, and then get her carefree and happy-go-lucky vibe back on. Hopefully they could all just pretend this misunderstanding had never happened and—
She started edging towards the door, but froze when dark eyes fixed on her. ‘Who in the blazes are you?’
His English was utter perfection when he was in a temper—clearly enunciated and delivered with precision. She managed a weak smile and held out a hand. ‘Hi, I’m Frankie Weaver. I’m here to pick grapes.’
He gave her hand a cursory shake, as if the politeness had been bred into him. But the fact that he resented having to be civil was as clear as his English. His brows drew down low over his eyes. ‘Why did you not say anything? Why did you not correct my misapprehension?’
The implicit accusation put steel in her spine. ‘Because I didn’t initially realise you were working under a misapprehension. I only realised it once you showed me the kitchen. I was trying to tell you when Mr…’ she gestured towards the other man, ‘broke the clearly unwelcome news that the person you thought I was has left you in the lurch.’
Another round of rapid-fire Italian followed—mostly curses. Creative ones too, which in normal circumstances might have made her laugh. But she didn’t dare laugh. She—
Why not? She hadn’t done anything wrong. Carefree and happy-go-lucky. When he paused for breath, she said in perfect Italian, ‘She indeed sounds like pond scum—some prehistoric slug-like creature that has dragged its sorry butt from the slime and brings with it a prehistoric stench at odds with grapevines and summer. You definitely don’t want someone like that in charge of your kitchen.’
He stiffened. ‘Are you mocking me, Ms Weaver?’
Oops. Okay, so maybe she hadn’t got the tone quite right. She backtracked as fast as she could. ‘Nope, absolutely not.’
‘You speak Italian?’ he snapped out.
Elegant nostrils flared. ‘I apologise if any of the things I just said were offensive to your ears.’
He dragged a hand through short, thick hair. It was the kind of hair that looked as if it never dared be out of place. It also looked ridiculously soft and—
‘I’m Michael Alcott, Dante’s personal assistant.’
The other man leaned across, breaking her train of thought. Mercifully. She shook the outstretched hand. ‘Nice to meet you.’
Michael turned back to Dante. ‘I have Donna and Alessio looking for replacements, but it’s not going to be possible to acquire a big name by Saturday. We might need to delay the opening.’
Dante snapped up to his full height. ‘I refuse to allow that woman to derail my plans. If we delay now, Lorenzo’s reputation will be tainted. People will think we are inefficient and unorganised. I refuse to allow such a thing.’
‘In that case, Dante, you need to reconsider your decision and take over the chef’s role. You have the skills and training.’
Those arms started waving about his head again. ‘I need to be front of house! I need to be Lorenzo’s eyes and ears, to ensure everything runs smoothly.’ He swung to Frankie. ‘Tell me you are a chef.’
‘I’d…uh…love to—’ liar ‘—but I’m lucky to not burn toast.’ She shrugged—carefully, she didn’t want him misconstruing it as her laughing at him again. ‘But if you can cook, then you can train anyone to be a halfway decent maître d’ before Saturday.’
Dante’s mouth opened and closed, his hands clenching.
Halfway decent wasn’t anywhere near good enough. Lorenzo’s had to be the best.
His throat thickened. To his eternal regret, he’d not spent as much time at the vineyard during the last three or four summers as he should’ve. Oh, he knew Lorenzo had been proud of him, proud of all he’d achieved, but he’d also forever been telling Dante he needed to stop and smell the roses too.
His hands clenched. He should’ve spent more time with his grandfather during these last few years. Now he couldn’t and—
Dragging in a breath, he fought for control. What he could do was take one entire summer off from running his business empire, to create a restaurant that would pay worthy tribute to the man who’d made such a difference to his life. It would be his attempt to spend one last summer with his grandfather.
This summer he’d create the restaurant of Lorenzo’s dreams. He’d do everything in his power to provide the restaurant with a rock-solid foundation that they could build on. One that would not only ensure its success but set it on the path to become a leading light in culinary circles. His grandfather’s name would be celebrated across the land.
Halfway decent? No. Halfway decent wasn’t anywhere near good enough.
‘Look, it’s a cinch,’ the woman said—what was her name again? Frankie? She strode out into the dining room and, passing by the maître d’ stand, mimed picking up two menus. In rather lovely Italian—perfectly understandable, but with an accent he couldn’t for the moment place—she said, ‘Mr and Mrs Conti, how lovely to see you. Welcome to Lorenzo’s.’
The welcome of her smile had him blinking and, in that moment, he could see why he’d mistaken her for Eleanora Toussaint. Beneath the surface warmth, Frankie had an easy and innate air of command. Like—
He clenched up so hard he started to shake. Like a chef!
Damn Eleanora Toussaint! She might not have signed a physical contract, but she’d verbally agreed to their arrangement. He could still sue her. He might not win, but he had the kind of money to drag out a suit that would tarnish her reputation.
He rubbed a hand over his face. Except he didn’t want that kind of publicity for Lorenzo’s. Besides, he wasn’t a vindictive man. Throwing good money away on an exercise like that was utter foolishness.
He’d allowed emotion to sway him too much already. If this had been any of his other projects, he’d have done everything by the book. Instead, he’d unwisely thrown the rulebook out of the window, so delighted to have captured the attention of such a celebrated chef. He’d congratulated himself prematurely, ignoring the fact she’d delayed signing the contract.
One should not give in to emotion. He’d learned that lesson the hard way. When one allowed emotion to rule them, they risked losing everything. Like his mother had lost everything when his father had left. If she’d been able to view her husband with a clear eye, she might’ve protected herself from hardship, heartbreak and deprivation. He would not let that happen again—not to him, not to her, not to his sisters. And he would not let it happen to Lorenzo’s now either.
‘Your table is this way.’
He snapped back, his temples pounding, as Frankie led her hypothetical diners to a table by the window and seated them. Her smile held welcome while her manner exuded poise and confidence. There was something else too, but it eluded him, defying definition.
Whatever it was, it would have customers blooming beneath it like grapes under a warm Tuscan sun.
Although he’d mistaken her for Eleanora, and although he’d been vexed with her late arrival, he’d been relieved when he’d finally come face-to-face with her. Or thought he had. It was odd, but something about Frankie put him at his ease. He felt that he could depend on her.
He frowned. It would be foolishness to trust such an impression. In his experience, that immediate impression of reliability was the province of con men and those with hidden agendas. Except he had an excellent nose for those, and nothing about Frankie rang any alarm bells.
His stomach knotted as he again tried to identify the elusive quality she possessed. Maybe it wasn’t a quality but the way she looked. She had an interesting face, attractive rather than beautiful, but it was a face he suspected he could stare at for a very long time without ever tiring of.
He jerked back. Cavolo. This woman was an employee. He did not have dalliances with employees. If the elusive quality he was trying to identify was attraction, then he would annihilate it immediately.
As if sensing the weight of his gaze, she glanced up, and he immediately smoothed his face out. She didn’t deserve his frustration. The situation he now found himself in was not of her making. However, her suggestion he find another maître d’ was not one which interested him. He opened his mouth to tell her where to report to Signor Silva, when she kicked back into action.
‘Yes, the seats on the terrace are the best seats in the house on an evening like this, but they’re always snapped up well in advance. However, I could get you a reservation out there for a fortnight’s time.’ She leaned in close to her imaginary couple as if to keep her next words just between them. ‘We had a cancellation not five minutes ago.’
He bit back a smile. Clever. Crafty. Yet still charming.
‘Why don’t you let me know if you’re interested when you’re leaving. I’ll keep it free until then. In the meantime, this table is also among our best and I think you’ll agree the view from the window is splendid. The food, I promise, will not disappoint.’
An attractive offer made without any pressure. He couldn’t have done better himself. She was charm personified.
She then proceeded to rattle off a hypothetical list of the chef’s specials for the evening without a single stutter or hesitation.
Beside him, Michael murmured, ‘She’s good.’ Then his phone rang. ‘I need to take this. I’ll be in my office if you need me.’
Dante nodded, his attention trained on Frankie, his mind racing. He did have the necessary skills to cook the kind of meals he dreamed of for this restaurant. It would work as a temporary measure until he could find a suitable replacement for Eleanora. It would buy him the time to woo someone with a name that would put Lorenzo’s on the map.
‘You have worked as a maître d’ or restaurant hostess before.’
One slim shoulder lifted. ‘My grandmother had an Italian restaurant in an inner-city suburb of Melbourne.’
Melbourne, Australia? That was her accent.
‘My cousin and I started bussing tables when we were just nine or ten. We loved it.’
He imagined a child version of this woman, lip caught between her teeth as she collected plates, just as it had when she’d parked her van. He could almost see the proud nonna standing nearby, and the restaurant patrons charmed by the enchanting child.
Of course, he expected he imagined for her far lovelier memories than they were in reality, and certainly lovelier than he’d had himself, but the way her lips lifted told him the memory was a fond one, so maybe his imagination wasn’t too far wrong.
She shook her head, those blue eyes dancing. Something inside of him tightened before instantly relaxing, but then those eyes met his and everything tightened again twice as hard. His pulse accelerated with a speed that would do an Italian sportscar proud.
‘Over the years, our roles there evolved. I was always drawn to front of house—waitressing and hostessing—while Audrey would head straight for the kitchen. Now if Audrey were here, she’d do an admirable job filling in as your temporary chef.’
‘Audrey, however, is not here.’ Despite the strange constriction in his throat, his voice emerged smoothly enough. ‘You are, and it appears that you could do an admirable job as Lorenzo’s maître d’.’
She stepped back, her face falling. ‘Me?’
‘You just proved—’ he waved at the table where she’d seated her hypothetical guests ‘—how suited you are to the position.’ With her warmth and charm, she would be perfect.
He made some calculations, mentally shuffled his plans to fit the new criteria. Frankie had experience plus she’d clearly enjoyed working at her nonna’s restaurant. And she spoke fluent Italian.
He would save Lorenzo’s from the disaster of a false start. Failure was not an option. He needed to honour the man who had saved him and his family. He was determined to pay homage where it was due.
He glanced back at Frankie. ‘Your grandmother is Italian?’
‘Was,’ she murmured. ‘She recently passed away.’
His heart grew heavy at the sadness in her eyes. He had to fight the urge to pull her into his arms and comfort her as he would one of his sisters. ‘I am very sorry for your loss.’
But that happy light had bled from her face, and his temples pounded as he belatedly registered her lack of enthusiasm to work in his restaurant. Why? She had said she was here to pick grapes, but the job he was offering her was ten times better. ‘Is your grief too fresh? Will working in my restaurant make you feel your grandmother’s absence more keenly?’
She opened her mouth, then closed it, frowned. ‘This trip to Italy…well it’s because of my grandmother that I’m here and…’ She folded her arms. ‘Working as maître d’ wasn’t part of the plan.’
‘What is the plan?’ What was she hoping to achieve? If he could help her achieve it, perhaps she would help him in return?
‘For the six weeks I’m here at Riposo, I plan to do whatever odd jobs Senor Silva asks of me before the grape-picking starts. In my spare time I’m going to explore the area. After that I mean to travel wherever the mood takes me.’
It took a superhuman effort to stop his lip from curling. Her nonna had left her a legacy and she was squandering it on an extended holiday? ‘May I ask how old you are?’
She blinked. ‘Twenty-six.’
Bah! She was too old to be squandering her life, and her grandmother’s fortune, in such an irresponsible fashion. Irresponsible and immature. He’d sworn to avoid such people at all costs.
Her gaze narrowed. ‘Why are you looking at me like that?’
But saying as much would not win her cooperation. It was none of his business what she did with her money. It was none of his business what her grandmother might think of her granddaughter’s behaviour. Still, Frankie’s nonna had clearly worked hard all of her life. Why hadn’t Frankie learned from that example? Why hadn’t she—
He pulled in a breath, focussed on the problem at hand. ‘It is very important to me that Lorenzo’s is a success. I want the restaurant to gain an international reputation for being one of the best restaurants in all of Tuscany. I want people to flock here from far and wide.’
Her nose wrinkled. ‘It has to be the best?’
Nothing else would do. Lorenzo had thrown Dante, his mother and sisters a lifeline when they’d most needed it. Dante had worked all the hours of the day since to achieve what he had. He would never squander it. He would never stop being grateful for it. And he would pay Lorenzo back the only way he knew how.
‘Dante,’ he said automatically, but then wondered why. He rarely invited employees to refer to him by his first name, unless he worked with them daily like Michael.
She moistened her lips. ‘Is it usual for you to personally oversee a project like this?’
‘Some projects I decide to oversee myself.’
Her gaze dwelled on his jaw, moved to his throat, and then his shoulders. Her mouth tightened and things inside of him tightened too. Women did not usually look at him like this when appraising him. Women usually found him attractive.
‘I hope you don’t stress this much about every project or you’ll end up with an ulcer.’
What did this woman know about stress? ‘My health is none of your concern.’ He thrust out his jaw. He knew he must look insufferably haughty, but who did this woman think she was, questioning him like this?
She took a step back. ‘No, of course it isn’t.’
This was going all wrong! He wanted to win her cooperation, not alienate her. He pulled in a measured breath. ‘The loss of Eleanora is a blow. It is going to take time for me to find a suitable replacement. With me working the kitchen and you working front of house, it will give me the breathing space I need to sort things out.’
She waved her hands in front of her face. ‘But maître d’ won’t be a hard role to fill.’
Frankie might think it would be easy to train someone for the position, but she was wrong. She had something unique—an air or aura that would be impossible to replicate. Lorenzo’s diners would love her. ‘Why waste time finding someone else when you have already demonstrated your competence?’
Her continued—and obvious—reticence had his temper flaring. ‘Have you always been such a restless gadabout?’ he demanded, slamming his hands to his hips.
Her eyes widened and she stared at him for several beats, not saying anything. Then she clapped a hand to her mouth, as if to halt a bark of laughter. Those irrepressible eyes danced and he waited rather fatalistically for her to call him stuffy or pompous or something equally unflattering. She didn’t. Which was just as well, because if she had, he’d have had to dismiss her. Eventually she just pulled her hand from her mouth and said nothing.
He reached for the threads of his temper. He could order her to take on the role, he was her employer for the next six weeks after all. But ultimatums rarely produced satisfactory results.
‘The harvesting of the grapes will not take place for several weeks yet, so why not take this opportunity that presents itself to you? It might not be part of your plan, but it is an exciting and interesting opportunity.’
‘The grape picking and odd-jobbing was part-time. I suspect this will be full-time. I’m not interested in working full-time.’
He breathed in through his nose and out through his mouth. ‘Lorenzo’s is only doing a dinner service. And for the first month we are only open Thursday through Sunday.’
She blinked as if his words had taken the wind out of the sails of her protests.
‘As you heard earlier, we open this Saturday night. This week we do have staff training, but again it is only a few hours here and there.’
‘You want me to do this instead of the odd-jobbing and grape picking?’
He gave a hard nod. He wanted her focussed wholly on the restaurant. ‘What do you say, Frankie, will you be maître d’ for a month until I can find a replacement chef? You will earn twice as much money than you would picking grapes. That will ensure you have plenty of money to continue your travels when you leave here—meaning less working and more holiday.’
Perfect lips pursed.
‘You are on a working holiday, yes? Consider this one of those unexpected things that happen when one travels overseas—an adventure.’
Her eyes suddenly brightened. ‘Can I still camp in Bertha as arranged?’
She had named her van? ‘All of your former arrangements will stand.’
‘Fine.’ She rolled her eyes ceilingward. ‘You have a deal.’
He tried to not feel affronted at her lack of enthusiasm. There were people who would jump at the opportunity to be front of house at his restaurant.
‘You will give me your best work, yes?’ His hands slammed to his hips. ‘You do not mean to sigh, roll your eyes heavenward and make my patrons feel they are a chore.’
She straightened. ‘Of course not. You have my word.’
But what was the word of a restless gadabout worth? He would need to keep a close eye on Frankie Weaver. He refused to let anything else go wrong in the lead up to Lorenzo’s opening.
Yes, he’d keep a very close eye on Frankie.