‘KEEP your eyes down, serve the food and then leave. No lingering in the President’s Suite. No gazing, no engaging the prince in conversation, and no flirting. Especially no flirting—Prince Casper has a shocking reputation when it comes to women. Holly, are you listening to me?’
Holly surfaced from a whirlpool of misery long enough to nod. ‘Yes,’ she croaked. ‘I’m listening, Sylvia.’
‘Then what did I just say?’
Holly’s brain was foggy from lack of sleep and a constant roundabout of harsh self-analysis. ‘You said—you told me—’ Her voice tailed off. ‘I don’t know. I’m sorry.’
Sylvia’s mouth tightened with disapproval. ‘What is the matter with you? Usually you’re extremely efficient and reliable, that’s why I picked you for this job!’
Efficient and reliable.
Holly flinched at the description.
Another two flaws to add to the growing list of reasons why Eddie had dumped her.
Apparently oblivious to the effect her words were having, Sylvia ploughed on. ‘I shouldn’t have to remind you that today is the most important day of my career—catering for royalty at Twickenham Stadium. This is the Six Nations championship! The most important and exciting rugby tournament of the year! The eyes of the world are upon us! If we get this right, we’re made. And more work for me means more work for you. But I need you to concentrate!’
A tall, slim waitress with a defiant expression on her face stalked over to them, carrying a tray of empty champagne glasses. ‘Give her a break, will you? Her fiancé broke off their engagement last night. It’s a miracle she’s here at all. In her position, I wouldn’t even have dragged myself out of bed.’
‘He broke off the engagement?’ Sylvia glanced from one girl to the other. ‘Holly, is Nicky telling the truth? Why did he do that?’
Because she was efficient and reliable. Because her hair was the colour of a sunset rather than a sunflower. Because she was prudish and inhibited. Because her bottom was too big…
Contemplating the length of the list, Holly was swamped by a wave of despair. ‘Eddie’s been promoted to Marketing Director. I don’t fit his new image.’ So far she hadn’t actually cried and she was quite proud of that—proud and a little puzzled. Why hadn’t she cried? She loved Eddie. They’d planned a future together. ‘He’s expected to entertain clients and journalists and, well, he’s driving a Porsche now, and he needs a woman to match.’ With a wobbly smile and a shrug, she tried to make light of it. ‘I’m more of a small family-hatchback.’
‘You are much too good for him, that’s what you are.’ Nicky scowled and the glasses on the tray jangled dangerously. ‘He’s a b—’
‘Nicky!’ Sylvia gave a shocked gasp, interrupting Nicky’s insult. ‘Please remember that you are the face of my company!’
‘In that case you’d better pay for botox before I develop permanent frown-lines from serving a bunch of total losers every day.’ Nicky’s eyes flashed. ‘Holly’s ex and his trophy-blonde slut are knocking back the champagne like Eddie is Marketing Director of some Fortune 100 company, not the local branch of Pet Palace.’
‘She’s with him?’ Holly felt the colour drain from her face. ‘Then I can’t go up there. Their hospitality box is really close to the President’s Suite. It would just be too embarrassing for everyone. All his colleagues staring at me—her staring at me—what am I going to do?’
‘Replace him with someone else. The great thing about really unsuitable men is that they’re not in short supply.’ Nicky thrust the tray into the hands of her apoplectic boss and slipped her arm through Holly’s. ‘Breathe deeply. In and out—that’s it—good. Now, here’s what you’re going to do. You’re going to sashay into that royal box and kiss that sexy, wicked prince. If you’re going to fall for an unsuitable man, at least make sure he’s a rich, powerful one. The king of them all. Or, in this case, the prince. Apparently he’s a world-class kisser. Go for it. Tangling tongues at Twickenham. That would shock Eddie.’
‘It would shock the prince, too.’ Giggling despite her misery, Holly withdrew her arm from her friend’s. ‘I think one major rejection is enough for one week, thanks. If I’m not thin and blonde enough for the Managing Director of Pet Palace, I’m hardly going to be thin and blonde enough to attract a playboy prince. It’s not one of your better ideas.’
‘What’s wrong with it? Straight from one palace to another.’ Nicky gave a saucy wink. ‘Undo a few buttons, go into the President’s Suite and flirt. It’s what I’d do.’
‘Fortunately she isn’t you!’ Sylvia’s cheeks flushed with outrage as she glared at Nicky. ‘And she’ll keep her buttons fastened! Quite apart from the fact I don’t pay you girls to flirt, Prince Casper’s romantic exploits are getting out of hand, and I’ve had strict instructions from the Palace—no pretty waitresses. No one likely to distract him. Especially no blondes. That’s why I picked you in the first place, Holly. Red hair and freckles—you’re perfect.’
Holly flinched. Perfect? Perfect for melting into the background.
She lifted a hand and touched her unruly red hair, dragged into submission with the liberal use of pins. Then she thought of what lay ahead and her battered confidence took another dive. The thought of walking into the President’s Suite made her shrink. ‘Sylvia—I really don’t want to do this. Not today. I just don’t feel—I’m having—’ What—a bad hair day? A fat day? Frankly it was a battle to decide which of her many deficiencies was the most pronounced. ‘They’re all going to be thin, blonde, rich and confident.’ All the things she wasn’t. Her hands shaking, Holly removed the tray of empty glasses from her boss’s hands. ‘I’ll take these back to the kitchens. Nicky can serve the royal party. I don’t think I can stand them looking at me as if I’m—’
As if I’m nothing .
‘If you’re doing your job correctly, they shouldn’t be looking at you at all.’ Unknowingly echoing Holly’s own thoughts, Sylvia removed the tray from her hands so violently that the glasses jangled again. Then she thrust the tray back at Nicky. ‘You take these glasses back to the kitchens. Holly, if you want to keep this job, you’ll get up to the President’s Suite right now. And no funny business. You wouldn’t want to attract his attention anyway—a man in his position is only going to be interested in one thing with a girl like you.’ Spotting another of the waitresses craning her neck to get a better view of the rugby players warming up on the pitch, Sylvia gave a horrified gasp. ‘No, no. You’re here to work, not gape at men’s legs—’ Abandoning Holly and Nicky, she hurried over to the other girl.
‘Of course we’re here to gape at men’s legs,’ Nicky drawled. ‘Why does she think we took the job in the first place? I don’t know the first thing about scrums and line-outs, but I do know the men are gorgeous. I mean, there are men and there are men. And these are men, if you know what I mean.’
Not listening, Holly stared into space, her confidence at an all-time low. ‘The wonder is not that Eddie dumped me,’ she muttered, ‘But that he got involved with me in the first place.’
‘Don’t talk like that. Don’t let him do this to you,’ Nicky scolded. ‘Please tell me you didn’t spend the night crying over him.’
‘Funnily enough, I didn’t. I’ve even been wondering about that.’ Holly frowned. ‘Perhaps I’m too devastated to cry.’
‘Did you eat chocolate?’
‘Of course. Well—chocolate biscuits. Do they count?’
‘Depends on how many. You need a lot of biscuits to get the same chocolate hit.’
‘I ate two.’
Holly blushed. ‘Two packets.’ She muttered the words under her breath and then gave a guilty moan. ‘And I hated myself even more afterwards. But at the time I was miserable and starving! Eddie took me out to dinner to break off the engagement—I suppose he thought I might not scream at him in a public place. I knew something was wrong when he ordered a starter. He never orders a starter.’
‘Well, isn’t that typical?’ Nicky’s mouth tightened in disapproval. ‘The night he breaks up with you, he finally allows you to eat.’
‘The starter was for him, not me.’ Holly shook her head absently. ‘I can’t eat in front of Eddie anyway. The way he watches me always makes me feel like a pig. He told me it was over in between the grilled fish and dessert. Then he dropped me home, and I kept waiting, but I just couldn’t cry.’
‘I’m not surprised. You were probably too hungry to summon the energy to cry,’ Nicky said dryly. ‘But eating chocolate biscuits is good news.’