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A Surprise Christmas Proposal
By Liz Fielding
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter One"WHAT kind of job are you looking for, Miss Harrington?"
"Please, call me Sophie. Peter always does."
And where was Peter when I needed him? I'd been bringing my untapped potential to this employment agency for the last five years. Dropping in whenever I got bored. Or when an employer decided that I wasn't quite what he was looking for and encouraged me to widen my horizons. As far away from him as possible. Or when he decided that I was exactly what he was looking for and wouldn't take no for an answer ...
Actually, on this occasion I'd quickly realised that I was never going to be what my present employer was looking for, so, although it wasn't a good time for me to be out of work, I'd taken pity on him and done it for him. Now, confronted by the frosty-faced female on the business side of the desk, I was beginning to wonder if I'd been a bit hasty.
"Anything," I said, finally cracking in the face of her silent refusal to pick up my invitation to engage in social interaction. Get some kind of relationship going. "I'm not fussy. So long as it doesn't involve heavyweight typing or computers. I've had computers up to here."
I touched my forehead with the tips of my fingers to emphasise just how far 'up to here' with them I was.
Then I smiled to show that, computers apart, I wasn't going to be difficult. I couldn't afford to be difficult ...
Like my expensive manicure, it was totally wasted on this woman. Unmoved, she said, "That's a pity. Your experience at Mallory's would seem to be your most promising asset. What kind of reference would they give you?"
That was a tricky one. My interview technique had involved nothing more taxing than flirting at a party with a software boffin who had, apparently, been in search of a secretary. I'd never actually been a secretary - and I'd told him that - but I'd been prepared to give it my best shot. And he, sweet man, had been prepared to let me. Now, there was a man who appreciated well applied nail-polish ...
Unfortunately perfectly painted nails and good eyelash technique, even when coupled with the ability to make a perfect cup of coffee, hadn't entirely compensated for my inability to type with more than two fingers. Especially since, attractive though he undoubtedly was, flirting had been as far as I was prepared to go.
To be brutally honest, I'd only held onto the job for so long because his boss, Richard Mallory, had been about to marry my best friend. I'd brought them together through some seriously clever matchmaking and Rich hadn't quite been able to bring himself to invite me to take my skills elsewhere - which was why I'd made everyone promise to keep my resignation a secret until they'd left on their honeymoon.
He'd found out somehow, but I'd kept well out of his way during this last week before the wedding. Right now I needed a job - really needed a job - but not so badly that I'd watch a grown man break into a sweat as he tried to persuade me to stay. And I wouldn't be asking him for a reference for much the same reason.
I'd given it my best shot, but I'd missed the target by a mile. I was never going to be secretary material.
"I tend to do better in jobs where social skills are more important than the ability to type," I admitted, avoiding a direct answer to her question. "I've done reception work," I offered helpfully, indicating the thick file that lay in front of her. It was all there. Every job I'd ever had.
"Presumably in the kind of reception area that doesn't involve the use of a computer," she replied, signally unimpressed.
"Unfortunately they're few and far between these days," I said, and tried the smile again. In the face of her total lack of encouragement it wasn't easy; this would have been so much less difficult if I were talking to a man - men, simple souls, took one look and tended to forget about tedious things like computers and typing speeds. But I wasn't sexist. If she'd just give me a chance I was prepared to work with her on this. Really. "I worked in an art gallery once. I enjoyed that."
Well, I had - until the gallery owner cornered me in the tiny kitchen and I'd had to choose between unemployment and taking my work home with me. That had come as something of a shock, actually. I'd been fooled by his fondness for velvet trousers and satin waistcoats into believing I was quite safe ...
"Lots of opportunities to meet wealthy art collectors, no doubt. We're not running a dating agency, Miss Harrington."
If only she knew how far she was from the truth.
"I don't need a dating agency," I said, possibly a little more sharply than was wise under the circumstances. But I was rapidly losing any desire for interaction of any kind with this woman.
I didn't have any trouble attracting men. It was convincing them that I wasn't in the business of making all their dreams come true that was the problem. The ones who worked it out and still wanted to know me became friends. The others became history. Dates I could manage for myself. What I needed was a job. Now.
"I usually see Peter," I said, offering her a way out.
"If he's in? He understands what I can do."
The look I got suggested that she understood, too. Only too well. "Peter is on holiday. If you want to see him you'll have to come back next month. But I doubt if even he would be able to help you. Companies are looking for function rather than adornment in their staff these days." The woman indicated the file in front of her. "You've had a lot of jobs, Miss Harrington, but you don't appear to be actually qualified for anything. Do you ... did you ever ... have a career plan?"
"A career plan?"
For heaven's sake, did this woman think I was a total fool? Of course I'd had a career plan. It had involved an excessive quantity of white lace, two rings and a large marquee in the garden of my parents' home. I'd started working on it from the moment I first set eyes on Perry Fotheringay in a pair of skin-tight jodhpurs at some horsey charity do my mother had organised.
I was going to get engaged on my nineteenth birthday, married on my twentieth. I was going to have four children - with a Norland nanny to do all the yucky stuff - breed prize-winning Irish setters and live happily ever after in a small Elizabethan manor house in Berkshire.
Excerpted from A Surprise Christmas Proposal by Liz Fielding Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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