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Authors: Rosemary Pollock

The Sun and Catriona

BOOK: The Sun and Catriona
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THE SUN AND CATRIONA

Rosemary Pollock

Why had she acted so very rashly?

Catriona, a hotel employee, had lost her temper

and her job

over Count Vilhena

s arrogant demands. Now he wanted to hire her as companion to his half sister!

T
he job, though, meant living in Malta

under the same roof as the forceful count.

Impulsively Catriona agreed, excited by the idea of travel. Yet she soon found life next to impossible when her heart proved more unpredictable than the count himself!

 

CHAPTER ONE

Although
it was well past eleven o’clock, the big dining-room was still crowded. People were lingering over their coffee, talking and laughing, reluctant to move. Probably this was because outside, beyond the heavily curtained windows, it was a damp, disappointingly dreary August evening. Puddles were forming in the car park, the temperature had dropped to fifty degrees Fahrenheit, and miles of rain-sodden countryside lay between the Calverley Hotel and civilisation. It was depressing, especially for the dozen or so foreign tourists currently patronising the Calverley, but in spite of the weather it was generally felt that the place had its compensations. The trout pat
é
had been very good, the
escalopes de veau
even better, and the Gateau St.
Honoré
was a triumph. The chef had excelled himself, and several diners were sending him congratulatory messages. The Calverley had an international reputation for comfort, cuisine and service, and though its patrons tended to expect rather a lot they were not usually disappointed.

Cautiously, Catriona allowed herself to lean for a moment against the wall beside the kitchen door. Waitresses weren’t supposed to lean against anything, but her feet were tired and swollen and there was a steady, nagging pain in her back, which seemed to be in danger of splitting. The hotel was unusually full and she had been on duty for five
hours without a break. She was glad, tonight, that her stint as a waitress had only another four weeks to run. For a summer job it wasn’t bad. The pay was good and she had plenty of free time, which was important, but there were occasions when she could wish she had picked a slightly less exhausting method of earning essential cash. She longed to sit down for a moment, but knew that even if she had been allowed to do anything so revolutionary she might have found it difficult to stand up again. She glanced around the room, watching hopefully for signs of movement. The American couple by the door caught her eye, but—no, they weren’t moving, they were signalling. With an effort she threaded her way between the tables, summoning a determined smile.

‘Do you think we could have some more coffee
?

They sounded mildly apologetic, and although she was beginning to feel a trifle weary, Catriona warmed towards them. She replenished their cups, and as she did so became aware of the fact that someone else was trying to attract her attention.

It was the man at the next table, and deliberately she avoided his eye. She didn’t usually take unreasoning dislikes to people—and as far as the hotel’s patrons were concerned she did her best to like them

but this particular guest had been rather difficult. He was autocratic, for one thing, and he rarely appeared to be satisfied—with the hotel, the service, or even with the menu. He didn’t say much, but his manner was abrupt, and although he hadn’t actually been
rude to Catriona he frequently gave the impression that he was having difficulty in controlling his temper. It was absurd, for as far as she knew
,
the Calverley Hotel had given him no reasonable cause for complaint, and he hadn’t any right to be difficult. If he had been an older man, or some sort of invalid, she would have made allowances. But he wasn’t much more than thirty, his health was obviously excellent, and there was no doubt at all that he was wealthy. She had no time for him whatsoever. Unlike Kathy, the junior receptionist, who had been bowled over—by one glance from a pair of brilliant dark eyes, she was quite unimpressed by the fact that he was so good-looking, and his faint, elusive accent had also failed to captivate her. She knew that he came from an island in the Mediterranean and bore an unusual title—The Most Noble Count Vilhena

but she had no desire to discover more than that. She simply saw him as the kind of thing that made her job unnecessarily tiresome, and if she had needed further excuses for disliking him they had been provided during the last hour or so.

Tonight he had a young girl with him, and as soon as they entered the dining-room it had been obvious that they were related to one another. The girl was pretty, but although her features were softer, she bore a very noticeable resemblance to the man sharing her table. They had the same glossy black hair, the same slanting eyebrows, the same prominent cheekbones. Eventually it emerged that they were brother and sister, and it wasn’t very long before Catriona found herself feeling sorry for the girl. Her brother was apparently in an even more impatient mood than usual, making no attempt whatsoever to conceal the fact. When his sister hesitated over the menu, his fingers drummed impatiently on the tablecloth, and when she finally came to
a decision, he criticised her choice. At other times he barely spoke to her.

As far as Catriona was concerned, he could have waited for his coffee, or his liqueur, or whatever it was he wanted. But he was a guest, and it was her duty to see that his needs were attended to. When she had made certain that the American couple wanted nothing further, she turned to him.

‘Yes, sir?’

He barely looked up. ‘More coffee, please.’

She fetched the coffee-pot and began to refill his sister’s cup. As she did so, the girl smiled at her.

‘You must be so tired.’ Her accent was more noticeable than her brother’s, but she sounded pleasant.

‘Just a bit,’ Catriona admitted.

‘When do you stop working?’

‘When everyone stops eating. Perhaps twelve o’clock.’

‘Oh! That’s very late. When do you start?’

‘Usually at half past six. We have to make sure everything is ready.’

‘But that’s terrible! Peter, don’t you think so?’ Her brother shrugged. Catriona turned to replenish his cup, and as she did so she stumbled, losing her balance for a moment. The coffee-pot slipped in her grasp, and before she could do anyth
in
g to prevent it a torrent of hot black coffee cascaded from the spout. Paralysed with horror, she watched as it splashed down on to the immaculate sleeve of the guest’s dinner-jacket.

‘I—
I’m sorry!’ she gasped. Gaining control of the coffee-pot, she set it down on the table while slowly a dark stain began to spread across the snowy cloth.
People at other tables were turning to stare, and for a second or so .the dark girl sat motionless, as if she had witnessed an act of sacrilege. Then she stifled a giggle. Her brother removed his dinner-jacket, revealing the fact that the coffee had already begun to seep through.

‘Has it—has it burnt your arm?’ Catriona asked apprehensively.

‘No.’ He stood up, frustrating her efforts to mop his sleeve with a napkin. ‘You may be tired,’ he remarked coldly, eyeing her with dislike, ‘but I’m sure you’re adequately paid, and in your position I would try to be a little less clumsy. If I were your employer, I would not tolerate carelessness.’

His sister’s eyes opened very wide. ‘She could not help it—she tripped!’

Catriona stood still, the napkin in her hand. It annoyed her to find that her fingers were trembling. She knew that at this point she should apologise profusely, fetch more coffee, and then take the irate guest’s jacket from him, making a soothing promise to have it in the hands of the dry cleaning department by eight o’clock the following morning. After that, she realised, she ought to change the tablecloth, sponge the carpet, and inform the head waiter that there had been a slight accident.

She knew exactly what she ought to do, and for at least a minute she really meant to go through with it. Then she looked up into the dark face of the man who had been addressed as Peter, and something seemed to snap inside her.

‘I have apologised,’ she reminded him, ‘and I’m perfectly willing to apologise again. I’m sorry about your jacket, and if it’s damaged I’ll—I’ll pay for a replacement.’ As she spoke, the thought ran through her mind that his jacket was probably worth more than she was likely to earn in a fortnight, but that couldn’t be helped. Her breath coming rapidly, she ploughed on. ‘I’m sorry if I’ve spoilt your evening. It was an accident, though you probably won’t believe that. But I won’t apologise for existing, and I won’t let anyone talk to me as if I were—as if I were a Roman slave-girl! Since I started work in this hotel I’ve met all sorts of people, and most of them have been very nice, but—but just occasionally there’s someone like you, and it makes me angry. You value your comfort, but you don’t even notice the people who work hard to provide it for you. You like life to run smoothly, but when someone tries to make sure that it does you can’t even spare the time to say thank you. You’re impossible! You’re—you’re a parasite!’

She stopped, aware that a deadly silence had fallen in the dining-room. A firm hand touched her arm, and she saw that the manager was standing beside her.

‘You’ve said quite enough, Catriona. Go to my office. I’ll deal with you in a few minutes.’ He turned away from her and began making apologetic noises in the direction of his affronted guest. He was, as she had always realised, very good at his job. She left the room quickly, only partially conscious of the astonished stares that followed her to the door. As she vanished from view she knew that a mur
m
ur of comment broke out behind her, and she walked faster still, almost running down the beige-carpeted corridor that led towards the front of the hotel.

In the manager’s office it was quiet and still. Lucy,
Mr..
Denning’s secretary, had finished work hours before and her desk was tidy. There was a grey carpet and a wall lined with grey filing-cabinets; a bookshelf crammed with guidebooks, gazetteers, hotel lists and trade directories. On the manager’s huge maplewood desk a massive ledger lay open, and three jade-green telephones clustered together as if for mutual protection.

Catriona shivered and sat down. Despite the fact that the central heating was operating very efficiently, she felt cold. In some ways she didn’t regret what she had done. She had said what needed to be said. But she was sorry to have let
Mr.
Denning down. He had been a fair and reasonable employer.

A minute or two later
Mr.
Denning came into the room. She saw at once that he wasn’t looking forward to the interview in front of him, and she braced herself, lifting her chin. ‘Well, Catriona.’ Going round behind his desk, he sat down and cleared his throat. When she said nothing, he glanced at her. ‘I’ve apologised to Count Vilhena. Fortunately he doesn’t seem to have paid much attention to your outburst. You knew who he was, I suppose?’

She shook her head. ‘I only knew that he had some sort of outlandish title—The Most Noble Count Vilhena.’ Swiftly she added: ‘I’m sorry,
Mr.
Denning. I didn’t mean to behave so badly. But—but I was tired tonight. And he’s not a very pleasant person.’

The manager leant back in his chair. ‘You did pour a pot of coffee over his dinner-jacket.’

‘I know, but it wasn’t just that. He’s been so difficult—ever since he arrived.’

‘I see. You thought this particular guest was difficult. So, in a crowded dining-room, you told him what you thought of him.’

Recognising the ominous note in his voice, she tilted her head defensively. ‘I’m sorry, but I couldn’t help it.’

‘Well, that’s fair enough. You’ve been straightforward with me, and now I must be straightforward with you. I can’t keep you on, Catriona. I know your ambition is to paint pictures, and you only took this job as a way of making ends meet, but I can’t tolerate artistic temperament in a member of my staff. Not when it means allowing you to insult a Maltese millionaire who could easily, if he likes us, become a very valuable customer.’ He cleared his throat a second time. ‘I’m sorry, but it might happen again, and I can’t take the risk.’

Catriona stood up. ‘I understand.’

‘Well, I hope you do.’ He looked mildly uncomfortable. ‘You were to have been with us for another four weeks and of course you will be paid for that length of time, but I must ask you not to do any more work. In the morning my secretary will give you a cheque, and you may keep your room here until you’ve found another job.’

Catriona had a lot of pride, inherited, like her temper, from a redheaded Highland grandmother, and she longed for the strength of will to refuse his offer of payment which was not going to be earned. But she couldn’t afford to refuse it. This summer’s earnings were going to have to keep her through the winter that lay ahead. During the winter she would hibernate, living very cheaply, and while she was hibernating she would paint. So that by next spring she would be ready for her Exhibition.

As she turned to leave the room,
Mr.
Denning nodded to her. ‘Goodnight, Catriona.’

‘Goodnight,
Mr.
Denning.’ Behind her, the office door clicked shut, and she walked slowly away towards the lift reserved for staff.

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