“LA CONTESSA DE PERUGIA requires a wash and style tomorrow, Bella. Surely we can fit her in?”
Bella blinked up at her godmother and boss, Madame Gothel, who stood beside an elegant, middle-aged woman at the reception desk of the salon.
Surely we can’t, thought Bella, looking down at the already-overbooked appointment log for tomorrow. “I’m so sorry, but tomorrow is already—”
“Two o’clock?” trilled Madame Gothel, smiling at the client.
“Si. Perfetto. Grazie , Madame.”
“Brilliant. Add la Contessa to the schedule at two, Bella.”
It occurred to her to ask, With whom? but she held her tongue, writing “Perugia” in tiny letters next to the four already-confirmed appointments.
Madame smiled at the contessa, gesturing with her palm to the glass doors that led to the hotel elevator. “I’m leaving for today. Let me walk you out.” Looking over her shoulder, she scanned the reception area before sniffing at Bella. “Straighten up in here before locking up, Bella. I’ll see you at home. Good night.”
Though her shift should have ended three hours ago, Bella nodded. “Of course. Good night, Madame.”
Dropping her eyes back to the appointment book, Bella stared at tomorrow’s schedule in dismay. Madame Gothel’s intimate, world-famous Innsbruck Salon and Spa, located on the top floor of New York’s Metro Tower Hotel, was in high demand but seriously understaffed.
It didn’t help that the last receptionist had only lasted three days before Madame had sacked her. Which meant Bella was now working double duty: as a stylist from nine to five every day and as receptionist from five to eight every evening as well. Though she didn’t recall agreeing to the increased responsibilities and hours, Bella’s parents had passed away four years ago, and Madame Gothel, her godmother, had taken her in when she had nowhere else to go. Besides, there was something about Madame that made refusing unthinkable. And a little terrifying.
Closing the appointment book, Bella sighed. Five appointments. Four stylists. They’d have to figure it out tomorrow. Perhaps one of the other two o’clock appointments would cancel, she thought, though she knew it was unlikely.
Opening the desk drawer, she grabbed the ring of salon keys, then walked over to the glass doors, squatting down to lock them. Back at the desk, she took out the Windex and a fresh rag, then got to work shining the chrome desk top, the glass doors, and the many decorative mirrors and shiny surfaces in the small reception room. She watered the plants, taking care to remove the brown leaves and throw them in the trash. As she fanned out the magazines on the end tables, enjoying the quiet, a knock on the glass doors made her jump, and she whipped around to see a man standing in the darkened lobby, his hand raised in greeting.
“Are you open?” he enunciated carefully through the glass.
She shook her head no, stepping over to the locked doors. “Sorry.”
“Damn it,” he muttered, his eyebrows knitting together as he stared at her.
As she drew closer, she felt her face soften as she stared through the glass into dark eyes surrounded with longer and thicker lashes than any man on earth had a right to. She guessed he was about her age—in his midtwenties—and he wore a tailored tuxedo, pressed and perfect on his tall, filled-out frame, a white rosebud tucked into the lapel.
“We reopen tomorrow morning.”
“I need help now,” he pressed, running a hand through his dark hair.
“I’m sorry,” she said, wringing her hands together. Madame would have her head if she suddenly reopened the salon after hours without permission. “I can try to fit you in tomorrow morning at—”
“No! Please. Let me explain,” he said, holding up his hands in surrender. “My sister, Valentina...she is...” He rubbed the dark beard on his chin with his thumb and forefinger.
“Your sister?” she prompted.
“She needs help getting ready.”
“For her engagement party”—he glanced at his watch—“which is in three-quarters of an hour.” He sighed, clenching his jaw. “Per favore! This is...eh! Che casino!” What a mess!
She froze, the sound of her native language disarming her, making her lean forward and ask automatically, “Posso aiutarla?” How can I help?
His face, which had been fraught with consternation, softened, his lips tilting up in a slight smile as he looked down at her through the glass.
“Parli italiano?” You speak Italian?
“Sí,” she replied. “Sono svizzero, del Ticino.” Yes. I’m Swiss, from Ticino.
“Sei molto lontano da casa.” You’re far away from home. As he said this, he unfurled his fists, which were by his sides.
“Mi aiuteresti per favore, bella?” Will you help me, beautiful?
She knew that he’d only used the word as a common endearment, but hearing her name tumble from his gorgeous lips was her ultimate undoing.
What Madame didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her.
She nodded, kneeling down on the floor, pulling the keys from the pocket of her dark-blue denim skirt and unlocking the door. Rising slowly, she noted the shiny, stiff black leather of his shoes, the purple silk cummerbund with a repeat of golden shields, and the crisp, white shirt tucked into his trim waist. She took a deep breath and lifted her eyes to his, forcing herself not to linger on the fullness of his lips or swoon when she looked into his dark-blue eyes.
His hand reached for the door handle, and he pulled it open.
She’d been deprived of his smell from the other side of the glass, but the breath she held became painful as her heart thundered against her ribs in recognition of it: Acqua Nobile.
Exhaling softly, she breathed in through her nose, her eyes fluttering closed just for a moment as she savored the scent.
Blinking her eyes open, she looked up at his face, taking another deep breath. “Sí?”
“Do you arrange hair?”
“Capelli?” he asked, pointing to his head.
Capelli. Her surname. She nodded at him, feeling dreamy from the combination of his ridiculous eyelashes and delicious smell and hearing her name issue from his lips yet again. “Sí.”
“Stupendo,” he said, reaching for her hand and pulling her from the glass tower. “Come with me.”