Kate spun on her office chair, aware of someone behind her. Why hadn’t she heard her office door open?
‘Ricardo,’ she said. ‘Are you trying to give me a heart attack? I thought you were in Europe.’
‘Sorry, Katerina. Didn’t mean to scare you. I thought my arrival would be a pleasant surprise.’
What vanity, she thought with distaste. She loathed men who were egotistical.
‘So how did you get past Millie?’ Kate knew she could depend on her Personal Assistant, to fend off unwelcome callers. But Ricardo ignored her question and she could only surmise that he had used his legendary masculine wiles.
‘How could I keep away from you, Katerina?’ He bent towards her, hands resting lightly on her desk enclosing her in a cage of his making.
‘No! That I’ve heard a thousand times,’ she said. Her manner was nothing if not cool. She had rarely spoken to the tall Italian smiling down on her, but she was not unaware of the effect he had had on the young women employed at Bell Engineering. Ricardo Bertoli was said to be too charming to be real. She wasn’t deceived by his boyish good looks and engaging manner.
Vigilant after observing the glow that emanated from other women when he gave them his attention, she was determined to be the exception. She turned her head pointedly from his left arm to his right. He straightened up and turned so that he was now perched on the edge of her desk.
His face showed neither embarrassment nor contrition for having invaded her space, only good humour and quizzical amusement. Obviously he wasn’t to be easily discouraged.
What on earth does he want? She looked up into the handsome face now only inches from hers. His open smile looked guileless, but she hadn’t arrived with the latest software offer. Relenting enough to be polite, but determined not to give him one iota of encouragement, she asked, ‘How long have you been back in New Zealand? And what brought you down from your ivory tower? We don’t often see you on this floor.’
‘I’m working on a new project for a bridge over the Clutha River in Otago.’ He hesitated, fingering a glass millefiore paperweight. ‘You’re a qualified engineer. I wondered if you would give me your opinion on one or two details.’
‘I’m a bit out of date in that area,’ she said. Her smile was rueful. ‘Managing this office doesn’t leave much time for anything else.’ She wondered why he would come to her when there were plenty of other engineers in the company. She was impervious to flattery if that were his aim. ‘Roll it out.’ She made room on her desk but without any attempt to hide a sigh of resignation.
As he spread out the specification she was conscious of his closeness. Glancing surreptitiously at his profile she couldn’t deny that he was attractive. Over the following thirty minutes, in which they discussed the pros and cons of his design, she sensed his magnetism.
He projected it rather like a laser– quietly, effectively and apparently without effort. She knew, once she had a plan in front of her, that her appetite for the hands-on business of engineering would be as unwavering as ever.
What came as a revelation was that the author of the blueprint was equally diverting. Until today she had been strong in her resolve to keep Ricardo at arms’ length, confident that she would not succumb to his looks and charm. Now, as they came to the end of their deliberations, she began to have reservations about her earlier judgement. Was her change of heart due to him or to the project?
She had to concede that their work-related discussion had provided an unexpected bridge between them. Carefully he began to re-roll the plan.
‘Thanks for your time, Katerina. I can see you’re a great engineer.’
She ignored the compliment. ‘I’ll get back to it one day, Ricardo. This management job is just a step up the ladder.’ She expected him to leave now that they had finished what he had come for, but he walked over to the window and peered out.
‘The view from the 5th floor is better. You must come up and see it.’
‘I might, if I’ve nothing better to do,’ she said dryly.
Still he seemed loath to go. His arrival may have given her a shock but it was her response to his imminent departure that was giving her cause for concern. She was now wondering how she could prolong the encounter.
‘You look well after your holiday, Ricardo. Did you have a good time? Immediately she felt irked for asking such a mundane question. He must have heard it a hundred times since his return. Why couldn’t she have used her wits and thought of something amusing? Why was she trying to keep him there?
Hadn’t Julie warned her never to trust men who thought they were God’s gift? Before she could explain any of these conflicting emotions Ricardo turned from the window.
‘Yes, it was good, Katerina, especially seeing my family again. But I’m glad to be back in New Zealand.’ He hesitated for a moment and then said quietly, ‘I’ve been looking forward to seeing you again.’
He sounded sincere but she wasn’t prepared to alter her initial assessment. If anything, the compliment had strengthened her guard. She wouldn’t be lulled into thinking that he fancied her. That would be the road to disaster. She accepted his disclosure with a slight inclination of her head and a mischievous smile.
‘I’m sure you couldn’t wait, Ricardo. Men find me irresistible.’ With their professional discussion over she would take refuge in light banter. She could indulge in a little flirtatious give and take, knowing that soon he would be gone and she would be back into the Business Plan.
Momentarily that had lost its appeal, but Ricardo was a five minute diversion. It was work that was paramount. She turned back to her computer, sure that he would leave, and keen to proceed with what really mattered. But Ricardo continued to stand at the window.
‘There’s a film I’d like to see. I would very much like for you to come with me.’ The rhythm of his Italian accent fell on her ears like music and she turned to look at him. His invitation had been punctuated by a slight lifting of dark, finely arched eyebrows. Had she heard correctly? Cynicism returned. He’s filling in time before he takes up with his old flames, she thought, mildly amused.
‘What did you have in mind?’ She wasn’t game enough to add, ‘and presumably we follow up with dinner and seduction?’ although she imagined that this was the way he operated.
‘There’s a Continental film showing. I’ve heard it’s very good. We could go tonight and have something to eat and drink afterwards. What do you think?’
‘Why this sudden invitation?’ Her question was direct and brusque. Having been taken off guard she wasn’t going to give him the impression that she was an easy target, and so boost his belief that he could attract any woman he fancied. Away for the past three months he was obviously using her as a stopgap until he got back into circulation.
With these assumptions flooding her mind her first thought was to decline, making another date her excuse. Then just as quickly she tossed it aside.
Why shouldn’t she go out with him? She reached across her desk and flicked open her diary. She wasn’t doing anything tonight. Playing for time she pressed Control S and turned on her screen saver. Ironically, pink pigs with tiny wings floated before her eyes. She dragged her mind back to his invitation.
There was no way he would get far with her, if that were his intention. The thought of a carefree evening with someone who could make her feel special was alluring. Why not have a flirtation? It would make a break from the hours of work that had absorbed her over the past months. She turned back to him.
‘I’d be delighted’, she said, deciding to play his game. His company and light badinage might be enjoyable for one evening. She wouldn’t protest if he kissed her goodnight. Then she would dust her hands and walk away.
‘There’s a session at 6 o’clock. What if I collect you at 5.30?’ he said.
‘Thanks, but I’ll meet you there. I have my car and I’ll be working out of the office this afternoon.’ This was partly true. What she hadn’t said was that there was no way she wanted to be seen leaving with Ricardo. She had her reputation to consider.
‘Can we meet outside the theatre at 5.45?’ he asked.
‘Fine. I’ll see you then.’ She gave him a brief smile and turned back to her desk. ‘Ciao.’
She did not intend to spend too long thinking about Ricardo. Attractive as she found him she was sure that this for him was just another in an endless round of assignations. She wouldn’t be taken for a ride and then dropped like a discarded Coke bottle. But was what she was wearing suitable?
She had noticed at their first meeting only three weeks before that he had the Italian flair for style, managing to combine the elegant with the casual. She walked over to the mirror and studied her reflection.
Of average height with a slim figure, she was wearing a longer-length straight skirt and fitted jacket in dark cornflower-blue linen with a slubbed silk top in a lighter shade under it. Kate had bought the outfit a few months before. It enhanced the deep blue of her eyes.
Her appearance had definitely been improved by her recent visit to the hair salon she thought, patting her hair with satisfaction. She had taken the plunge and exchanged her blond shoulder length curls for a much shorter style which was brushed forward in light waves to frame her small heart shaped face.
Tracey on Reception had remarked that her new hair-do was ‘awesome’. A compliment from that quarter was praise indeed. Relieved she returned to her desk.
Hurrying towards the theatre she saw Ricardo’s figure in the distance. She tried to subdue the nervous flutterings that were welling up inside her. As she approached he turned towards her.
‘Katerina. How good it is to see you.’ That’s a bit over the top, she thought. Only a few hours had elapsed since their last meeting. ‘As always, you look beautiful.’
‘Thank you.’ Her answer was in reply to the compliment, and also to acknowledge the small gift he had placed in her hands while kissing her on both cheeks. Despite earlier reservations she had to acknowledge that she enjoyed his nearness, and the clean, spicy aroma of expensive after-shave that assailed her as his lips gently touched her skin. There was no denying it. He exuded virility.
‘I have the tickets. Shall we go in?’
She enjoyed the film. A love story set in Tuscany, it combined tenderness and earthy Italian humour. She became absorbed in the characters, the scenery, the language, and the plight of the lovers. Finally the hero and heroine, despite all misfortunes, find happiness at last. She sighed contentedly. Ricardo looked at her, his eyes evincing amusement in the half-light.
‘I think you enjoyed that, yes? Good.’
As they left the theatre he suggested they should eat at a small restaurant only a block away. She had been there before and could endorse its reputation for good food and service.
‘That way we can leave our cars where they are’, he said, having already established that they were in the same car park only minutes away from the theatre.
She felt a delicious shock go through her as he put his hand under her elbow and guided her through the crowd. It was only because the gesture was unexpected, she told herself. The average Kiwi bloke didn’t worry about such courtesies, and Ricardo had taken her by surprise, something that was becoming a habit.
The décor of the restaurant was old fashioned, with deep Axminster carpets, flocked wallpaper, and rich burgundy curtains. The furniture and silver was solid and timeless. The maitre d’ escorted them to a secluded table for two, and unobtrusively pulled out her chair. Ricardo has been here before, she thought, noting the deferential manner with which the waiter presented the menu and wine list. I wonder if this is the stamping ground for all his conquests. She realised how little she knew him.
Ricardo was studying the menu and she had to concede that it wasn’t only his smile that was appealing. He looked just as interesting when deep in thought. He appeared to be taking the decision of what to choose seriously, but he looked up suddenly and caught her eye.
‘What are you having?’ he asked. ‘Perhaps I can help you?’ The last comment was a question rather than the statement some men would have used. It confirmed her growing conviction that, far from thinking he was a superior being, he was actually shy.
‘I’m dithering between the Chicken Cordon Bleu and the Peppered Steak. What do you think?’ Then followed a lively discussion on the qualities of each, before she decided on Salmon à la Mode.
‘How like a woman,’ he said with mock anger, ‘to consider the merits of two and then at the last minute to change your mind. Is that how you will choose your husband?’
‘Hardly. I don’t intend to have one,’ was the tart rejoinder.
‘Do you have something against men?’
‘Why do you ask? I don’t have a dog, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like dogs.’
‘But you sound very sure. How do you know you won’t get married?’
‘Once bitten twice shy,’ Kate replied. ‘Can we drop the subject?’ Ricardo took the hint, and turned to give their order to the approaching waiter. They talked at length about the film and Ricardo entertained her with impersonations of characters in his home village. Other films entered the discussion. They had tastes in common.
Ricardo was an amusing storyteller but also a good listener, a somewhat rare combination in Kate’s experience. His qualities, she realised, were evoking in her the vitality and wit which had been bridled by years of study and responsibility. She felt alive, aware, and stimulated, qualities which of recent years she had confined to her work.
In a quiet moment she asked him how long he had lived in Wellington.
‘About ten years. I was twenty-one when I arrived in Auckland. Then I decided to see something of New Zealand before going home.’
‘And you’re still here. Couldn’t tear yourself away from cosmopolitan Wellington, I suppose?’ She feigned solemnity and he gave her a questioning glance. She realised that he wasn’t sure whether she was being serious or not. She had found a way to retaliate to his teasing. After a moment of reflection he said,
‘First I hitchhiked down the North Island. Then I decided to stay in Wellington.’
‘Why? Why here?’ She picked up the small vase of flowers between them and smelled with delight the cinnamon perfume of the small pink carnations.
‘Don’t you like it here, Katerina?’ he asked with a grin.
‘Yes, but it’s my home. That’s different. I couldn’t live anywhere else.’
He examined the salt cellar thoughtfully as if looking for a reply in its shiny surface. ‘I suppose one of the things I like is the beautiful clear light. And the brilliant colours.’ She looked puzzled. ‘You know – the dark green of the hills against the deep blue sky.’ He offered her the basket of bread rolls.
‘But the sky’s always that colour.’
‘Not in Europe. And the houses here blend into the hills as if they had grown there. They are so much part of the environment. In some ways it’s not unlike Tuscany, but without the pollution.’
‘It’s OK,’ she said, but she was gratified by his comments. ‘I think if I moved I’d miss the bays and beaches.’
‘True. Also I like the free, open society. The women are so..'(he sought for the right word), liberated and independent.’
And easy to bed, she thought darkly, wondering not for the first time how the evening would end. She was annoyed for being cynical. Why didn’t she enjoy his company, for goodness sake? She should forget her preconceived ideas about the attractive man sitting opposite, and accept him at face value. He was certainly lively and intelligent. She would reserve judgement.
Ricardo was recollecting with passion his boyhood in his home village close to Florence. The sparkle in his eyes and the enthusiasm in his voice fascinated her.
She said, ‘I still don’t know how you could leave Italy.’
‘It wasn’t easy.’ He then explained that his father had a large engineering company and had expected Ricardo, his elder son, to take over when he retired. ‘But I have another brother to do that. In any case my father won’t be retiring for years and years. Quite a lot could happen before then. Have you been to Italy, Katerina?’
‘Briefly – about five years ago.’
He sat back while the waiter served their main course. ‘You must go again one day. You’d love it, I’m sure. The scenery is beautiful and the people are friendly. My family would make you very welcome.’
Their conversation ranged over Italy, travel, books and food. To Kate it seemed no time at all before they were being served her Crème Brulée and his Apple Pie. She began to wish the clock would slow down a little, but with predictable inevitability the evening came to an end and Ricardo was escorting her to her car.
Despite her previous decision to enjoy the evening and abandon any misgivings she might have about him and his intentions, she grew increasingly anxious as the distance to the car park lessened. She knew she was being stupid. I’m not a teenager, she thought. At 25 I’m well able to take care of myself. What is there to be worried about? Why am I always so suspicious where men are concerned?
But her fears were groundless. Seeing the car keys in her hand, Ricardo took them from her, opened her car door, gently took her hand in his and pressed it to his lips. He waited until she was in the driving seat and was about to start the ignition.
‘Farewell, Katerina. Thanks for a lovely evening. I hope we can do this again sometime. Drive carefully,’ and he moved back to his car close by. She sensed that he was watching her from the shadows as she drove down the ramp of the parking building and gave another wave before he was lost to view. She was on her way home – alone!