Never Say No to a Caffarelli(4)

By: Melanie Milburne

It told him a lot about the owner-operator. He presumed the flame-haired beauty who had served him was Poppy Silverton. She wasn’t quite what he’d been expecting. He had pictured someone older, someone a little more hard-boiled, so to speak.

Poppy Silverton looked like she’d just stepped out of the pages of a children’s fairy-tale book. She had a riot of red-gold curls stuffed—rather unwillingly, he suspected, given the tendrils that had escaped around her face—under a maid’s mobcap; brown eyes the colour of toffee, and a rosy mouth that looked as soft and plump as red velvet cushions. Her skin was creamy and unlined, with just the tiniest sprinkling of freckles over the bridge of her nose that looked like a dusting of nutmeg over a baked custard. She was a mix between Cinderella and Tinkerbell.

Cute—but not his type, of course.

The swing door to the kitchen opened and out she came bearing a steaming cup of coffee. She had a smile on her face that didn’t show her teeth or quite reach her eyes. ‘Your coffee, sir.’

Rafe caught a faint trace of her flowery perfume as she bent down to place his coffee on the table. He couldn’t quite place the fragrance...lily of the valley or was it freesia? ‘Thank you.’

She straightened and fixed him with a direct stare. ‘Are you sure you wouldn’t like a piece of cake? We have other varieties, or cookies if you’re not a cake man.’

‘I don’t have a sweet tooth.’

She pursed her full mouth for a brief moment, as if she took his savoury preference as a personal slight. ‘We have sandwiches. Our ribbon ones are our specialty.’

‘The coffee is all I want.’ He picked up his cup and gave her one of his formal smiles. ‘Thank you.’

She leaned over to pick up a fallen petal from one of the columbines and he got another whiff of her intriguing scent and a rather spectacular view of her small but delightful cleavage. She had a neat, ballerina-like figure, curves in all the right places and a waist he was almost certain he could have spanned with his hands. He could sense she was hovering, delaying the moment when she would have to go back to the kitchen.

Had she guessed who he was? She hadn’t shown any sign of the instant flash of recognition he usually got. She had looked at him quizzically, as if trying to place him, when he’d first come in but he had seen confusion rather than confirmation in her gaze. It was rather comforting to think that not everyone in Britain had heard about his latest relationship disaster. He didn’t set out deliberately to hurt any of his lovers, but in this day and age a woman scorned was a woman well armed with the weapons of mass destruction more commonly known as social media.

Poppy Silverton moved over to one of the other tables and straightened the already perfectly straight napkins.

Rafe couldn’t take his eyes off her. She drew him like a magnet. She was so other-worldly, so intriguing, he felt almost spellbound.

Get a grip. You’re here to win this, not be beguiled by a woman who’s probably as streetwise as the next. Don’t let that innocent bow of a mouth or those big Bambi eyes fool you.

‘Are you usually this busy?’ he asked.

She turned and faced him again but her tight expression told him she didn’t appreciate his dry sense of humour. ‘We had a very busy morning. One of the busiest we’ve ever had. We were run off our feet. It was bedlam.... I had to make a second batch of scones.’

Rafe knew she was lying. This tiny little village was so quiet even the church mice had packed up and left for somewhere more exciting. That was why he’d wanted the manor. It was the perfect place to build a luxury hotel for the rich and famous who wanted to secure their privacy. He took a measured sip of his coffee. It was much better than he’d been expecting. ‘How long have you been running this place? I’m assuming you’re the owner?’

‘Two years.’

‘Where were you before?’

She wiped an invisible crumb from the table next to his. ‘I was sous chef at a restaurant in Soho. I decided I wanted to spend some time with my gran.’

Rafe suspected there was more to her career change than that. It would be interesting to see what his secretary managed to unearth about her. He sat back and watched her for a moment. ‘What about your parents? Do they live locally?’

Her face tightened and her shoulders went back in a bracing manner. ‘I don’t have parents. I haven’t had since I was seven years old.’

‘I’m sorry to hear that.’ Rafe knew all about growing up without parents. When he was ten, his had died in a boating accident on the French Riviera. A grandparent had reared him, but he got the feeling that Poppy Silverton’s grandmother had been nothing like his autocratic, overbearing grandfather Vittorio. ‘Do you run this place by yourself?’