Pippa could feel the heat of Jack Carmichael's wrath before she'd even reached the door to Aspen Valley's racing office. His raised voice bounced out of the open doorway.
'What do you mean "a couple of weeks"? I need someone right now! How can you call yourself Rush-Hour Recruitment if you can't supply people at short notice?... Yes, I want someone qualified... No, I've already said there isn't accommodation provided. This isn't a hotel! He-hello? Dammit!'
Pippa knocked on the door. Jack halted in his pacing. Leaning up against the doorframe, she gave him a sympathetic smile. 'Bad day?'
'You could say that. Bloody Gemma has up and left on some delusional romantic quest after her boyfriend to Cuba.'
'Your devoted secretary?'
'Or so I thought. And you, Miss Taylor? The only thing you can say to improve my day is to tell me you've changed your mind again and want to sell Peace Offering.'
'Nope. Sorry, can't help you there.'
Jack shook his head. 'Great. Well, come in. Don't stand there in the doorway looking smug.'
'I'm not looking smug. I'm just looking cheerful.'
Pippa pushed herself off the doorframe and sauntered in. 'Because I am now the proud owner of a racehorse and this is a fresh new chapter of my life.'
'Why do you want to keep him?'
'Because Dave wanted to enter him in the Grand National.'
Jack's blue eyes widened. 'I don't believe I'm hearing this. Peace Offering? In the National? That's only the biggest steeplechase in the world. He'd have no hope!'
In her mind, Pippa saw the paper full of statistics. 'Neither did Mon Mome or Foinavon. But they won.'
'Foinavon only won because there was a pile-up at the Foinavon Fence.'
'Wow, that's creepy. Everybody crashes out at a fence with the same name as the eventual winner.'
Jack looked at her under heavy lids. 'It only became known as the Foinavon Fence after the race and for that precise reason.'
Pippa grinned. 'Did you know only five favourites have won it in the last fifty years?'
Jack regarded her with a wry smile. 'My, my. You have been doing your homework.'
Pippa's cheeks flushed. 'It's true though. It's not as unrealistic as you're making it out to be.'
Jack sighed and raked a hand through his thick dark hair. 'And presumably you want to keep him in training here?'
'Miss Taylor –'
'Pippa. Please excuse me if I sound presumptuous, but how do you intend to afford his training fees on a waitress's salary?'
'With the money from Astolat's sale.'
'What about Dave's house? I thought that was the whole point of selling the horses.'
'How much do you charge?'
'More than you can afford, believe me.'
'Do you do discounts?'
'No. I –' Jack was interrupted by his mobile phone ringing. 'Bloody Lady Pennington. I don't have the strength to talk to her right now.' He viciously cut the call, but almost immediately it rang again. Jack sighed. 'Hello, Melissa... Tonight? Do we have to? You know I can only take so much of your father...'
Realising she was eavesdropping on a personal call, Pippa tried to distract herself. Peering over the reception unit, she saw a chaotic jumble of papers covering the desk, the message alert on the telephone was flashing and the innards of a Racing Post had spilled onto the floor. Jack wasn't coping well without Gemma, it would appear. A smile touched her lips as an idea occurred to her.
'...Okay, see you later.' Jack snapped shut his phone and took a deep breath. 'Right, where were we?'
'You were about to offer me a discount on Peace Offering's training fees.'
Jack stared at Pippa's beaming face. 'What? I don't do discounts. I told you.'
'But you would if I were to work for you?'
'That's ridiculous! By your own admission, you don't know anything about horses.'
Pippa examined her nails, avoiding his eyes. Her fingers trembled and she put her hand away. She wouldn't allow him to see just how shaky the ground was beneath her. 'Maybe not, but I do know that whatever person being supplied by that agency you were talking to earlier isn't going to know much either,' she said coolly. 'And whereas they can't get you anyone for at least two weeks, I can start immediately. Almost.'
'Absolutely not. You're a waitress. I need a secretary. There's more to this job than making the boss coffee. Do you have office experience?'
'Yes, I worked in a lawyer's office before.' Did two weeks' work experience as receptionist at Hodder & Barrett, Inc. count?
Jack's phone rang again.
'For God's sake!' he roared. 'What is it with people today? I'm a racehorse trainer, not a bloody receptionist. Hello, Mr Cox. How are you?' His tone changed like a channel had been switched. 'Good, good. Yes, sorry about that, I haven't had a chance to check my messages yet. My secretary isn't in today... Tomorrow afternoon sounds just fine. Dexter and Lugarno will be fed about five o'clock... My pleasure.'
The reception phone rang as Jack patiently dealt with an owner and Pippa took the initiative. Walking round the desk, she picked up the phone as Jack ended his call. 'Aspen Valley Stables,' she carolled. 'Oh, hello, Lady Pennington.' She grinned as Jack's face fell in terror and he frantically waved the phone away from him. 'I'm afraid he's unavailable right now,' she continued, laughing silently at Jack. 'I'm very sorry you've been trying for so long – yes, I understand you must have a very busy schedule. As such, I'm sure you can appreciate Mr Carmichael has as well. I'll pass on the message as soon as I see him though. Okay, bye for now.'
Jack looked traumatised. 'What did she want?'
'Just that she wanted to discuss the four Lord Pennington bought at the sales. She sounds like a right toff.'
'She is. The worst kind. Thank you for lying to her.'
'Pleasure. Does that get me the job?'
'No, of course not. Besides, you live in London. Are you going to commute every day?'
'I also have a house less than half an hour away.'
'Which is barely habitable by the sounds of it –'
They turned at the sudden interruption. Pippa recognised the girl wringing her hands in the doorway as the one she had met at the sales.
'Yes, Emmie? What is it?'
'Um, the hay from France has arrived.'
'Wow, you really do treat your horses well here. Do you serve them white Alba truffles imported from Italy too?' Pippa said, impressed.
Jack didn't deign to answer her. 'Okay, tell them I'll be there in a sec. You wait here, Miss Taylor. And don't answer the phone. Please.'
'Pippa,' she correctly faintly to his departing figure.
'This. Is. Only. Half. What. I. Ordered!'
Jack's deliberate words rang through the yard as Pippa ventured out of the office to investigate. In the car park, Jack stood facing a man in shabby jeans and a crumpled leather jacket. The trainer's tensed shoulders rose up and down with each controlled breath. The other man shrugged, relaxed in comparison. She turned her gaze from the men to a vast shaggy lorry bundled high with hay bales.
'How am I supposed to feed a hundred horses with this?' Jack said through clenched teeth. 'Bloody hell. Why am I even asking you this? They can't even send a driver who speaks English!'
'You English people are mad,' the man replied in French.
'Are you okay?' Pippa said with some concern. Jack was almost hyperventilating.
He turned and frowned at her. 'I thought I told you to stay in the office? But since you ask, no, I'm not. I've got a hundred horses to feed and only half the hay I ordered. What's more, they send a driver who can't speak English. Sometimes I think they do this on purpose. The French have a twisted sense of humour.'
'Better than none at all.' Pippa raised her eyebrows meaningfully at him and he glared back.
'Why don't you go back to the office like I asked and I'll be with you once I've cleared up this mess?'
'How do you intend to do that if you don't speak French?'
'We're in England! I'm allowed to not know French. He's not!'
The Frenchman might not have been able to understand them, but he understood Jack's aggression clearly. He muttered under his breath.
'Maybe I can help,' Pippa said.
'Do you speak French?'
'Well, I learnt a bit at school and –'
'Somehow I doubt whether your schoolgirl French lessons are up to this.'
'Suit yourself.' Pippa turned to the Frenchman. 'You're right, but it's only some English who are mad,' she said to him fluently. The man grinned. 'I'll go wait in the office, shall I?'
Jack grabbed hold of her arm. 'Wait! You do speak French! Tell him he hasn't delivered the full order. What's on this order form isn't what's on that lorry.'
'Hmm. My schoolgirl French lessons might not be up to it,' Pippa said slyly. Her two years spent at an art college in Paris might have been though.
'Stop taking the piss!'
'That's no way to speak to an owner. Do you want my help?'
'Yes! Tell him –'
'I know, I know. Are all racing trainers like this?' she asked the Frenchman.
'Some, but this one is particularly bad.'
'What did he say?'
'He said you're a very good trainer.'
'What's that got to do with anything? Lose the chitchat. Ask –'
'He seems to think you have delivered too little hay, but are charging him for the full price.'
'He thinks I am trying to cheat him, but I keep telling him that I'm not! He won't listen. He is being completely unreasonable.'
'What?' Jack interjected.
'He says he can understand where the confusion has arisen. It's completely understandable.'
Both men regarded each other suspiciously.
'I have travelled from France with another lorry which has broken down somewhere in this crazy country. Now I wish I had offered to stay behind with the broken down lorry than come up here. I could have let Francois deal with this bastard.'
Pippa murmured her sympathy and asked herself equally why she was doing this.
'What?' Jack said impatiently.
She looked at him with an increasing lack of empathy. It's for Dave and Peace Offering, she told herself.
'He said the other half of your order has broken down somewhere on the way. He regrets you should be put in this situation.'
'Great. When am I going to get it?'
'Do you know when the other lorry will be fixed?'
'They are working on it now. It should arrive tomorrow. The sooner the better I think. For me though, I'll make sure I don't have to do orders for Monsieur Carmichael in future.'
'What did he say about me?'
'He said he admires you very much and it's a pity you have met under these circumstances.'
'A pity indeed. When is my hay going to arrive?'
'Tomorrow hopefully. They're doing their best to get the lorry going right now. What are you doing ordering hay from France anyway? What's wrong with British?'
'That bloody awful summer we've had this year ruined the crop. Instead, we've got to dish out a fortune to the French for theirs.' Jack turned back to the stables. 'BILLY! TOM!'
Two lads appeared from within the yard.
'Come help this guy unload the hay into the barn, will you? Billy, I don't want you climbing up top. You're better off on firm ground. And if you don't know any French, don't bother trying to make conversation. How can they send over someone who can't speak the bloody language?'
'You don't know French,' Pippa reasoned as the Frenchman and lads began unfastening the load.
'Yes, but I don't need to. Everyone speaks English. Or they should.'
'Well, since they don't, do you admit that I might have my uses? I might be a waitress, but I'm not stupid, Jack.'
Jack sighed and looked away. 'Okay, I'm sorry. I don't think you're stupid. I'm sorry if I implied that you were.'
'So do I get the job?'
Jack gave her a resigned look making Pippa brighten with hope. 'Do you know what you're letting yourself in for?'
'I love a challenge,' she grinned.
'Peace Offering might not be worth it. He hasn't won in two years.' Jack tried once more, but Pippa knew she had him beat.
'Neither had Silver Birch.'
For the first time, Jack smiled, flashing a row of even white teeth.
'Okay, fine. When can you start?'
Copyright © Hannah Hooton, 2015