Melissa Romney-Jones can bake a perfect sponge cake, type her little heart out, and plan a party blindfolded. But none of that has helped her get far in life or in love. When she gets fired -- again -- she decides to market her impeccable social skills to single men. To avoid embarrassing her father, a Member of Parliament, Melissa dons a blond wig and becomes "Honey," a no-nonsense bombshell who helps clueless bachelors shop, entertain, and navigate social minefields. She even attends parties if a client needs a "date." But when a dashing American starts to request Honey's services on a regular basis, it's only a matter of time before Honey's and Melissa's worlds collide....
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Hester Browne is the New York Times bestselling author of numerous novels, including The Little Lady Agency in the Big Apple, The Finishing Touches, and Swept Off Her Feet. She lives in London and Herefordshire with her two Basset hounds Violet and Bonham.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
My name is Melissa Romney-Jones, but you can call me Honey. In the past, when people asked me to describe myself, I used to say I was one of nature's organizers. Reliable. Sensible. A bit, you know, shy. My friend Gabi would have said I was a domestic goddess in practical shoes, but then she always took a positive view of my hips. My flatmate Nelson would have said I was too bloody nice for my own good, and then would have been unable to resist making some crack about my clueless taste in lounge-lizard men.
Ask about Honey, though, and you get a much more interesting description.
Honey is a supercharged whirlwind, Mary Poppins in silk stockings. I've dated more than fifty men this year alone, seven of whom were gay; I've been married temporarily to another fifteen; I've sent seventy Mother's Day cards, all to different mothers, and dispatched armfuls of flowers to sisters, secretaries, and secret amours; I've been a live-in girlfriend to twenty-one bachelors and a vengeful ex-girlfriend to another three men keen to return to bachelorhood; I've transformed forty-three frogs into princes by dragging them round the shops and into barbers' chairs; I've cured nine men of nail-biting, found gifts for fifteen godchildren, and arranged no fewer than thirty-one very successful parties.
I've also attended five weddings. Three as Honey, one as Melissa, and one, very confusingly, as both Honey and Melissa at the same time.
How I got myself out of that particular tangle is a tribute to the magical powers of feminine charm and good manners. How I got myself into it is rather more complicated....
My golden rule has always been to look on the bright side, no matter what. With all the complications in my life, I've had to. Notorious father, unsupportive sisters, constant cash-flow dramas, multiple schools...But if you can find three good things about any given situation, no matter how dire, I guarantee you'll forget the rotten stuff.
The three best things about my job with the Dean & Daniels estate agency were as follows: First, it was highly satisfying to know I was helping people to find somewhere perfect to live. Second, the hours weren't too long. And third, the office was terribly convenient for the shops, on the rare occasions that I had any money to spend.
I won't go into the rotten stuff. You can probably guess it for yourself.
According to my job description, which I wrote myself since no one else had ever bothered to sort it out, I was personal assistant to Hughy, who sold two-and three-bedroom houses, and Charles, who specialized in mews. It was my job to calm them both down and smooth everything over, and, although I say it myself, they only believed they were efficient because I left no trace.
"No shopping bags, Melissa?" simpered Carolyn, the office manager, when I bowled in after lunch -- on time, I might add. "Your credit card lives to fight another day?"
"My credit card is just fine right now," I said with as much dignity as I could muster. And then, because I'm pretty hopeless at lying, even when I'm trying to be dignified, I added, "Anyway, nothing fitted. I'm just not the right shape for modern clothes."
"Fashion is a cruel mistress." Carolyn folded her arms over her flat chest and gave me one of her smug looks. She wore a lot of sleeveless Joseph tops, just to prove she had money to chuck around and didn't need a bra.
"Mel's an hourglass," said Gabi, adding, "whereas you're just ghaaaastly" under her breath in a mocking Sloane accent.
I mouthed a "thank-you" at her over my monitor. I wished I had Gabi's cheerful confidence. Particularly in my figure: She thought I should embrace my billowing curves and wiggle around in skintight capri pants and straining blouses, like Gina Lollobrigida or Jayne Mansfield. In my head, I did entertain the idea, honestly. But out in the real world, I didn't have the nerve to go the whole hog.
Gabi was my best friend at Dean & Daniels. We were united in our loathing of Carolyn and our mutual desire for a real Kelly bag. That's about all we had in common, but we got on like a house on fire, despite the fact that she claimed to hate posh girls (the office is packed with them) and stupid horse-faced men (who made up the other half of the staff).
"It's nice of you to see it like that," I said, and automatically checked my e-mails in case there was any communication from Orlando, the on-off love of my life. We had been off for a few months now, but I lived in hope that he might change his mind. Still nothing. My heart broke a little, yet again, but I rallied myself before Gabi's eagle eyes could register any signs of weakness. A big sigh slipped out.
"Oh, come on," she said. "Ignore the numbers on the labels -- they don't mean anything."
"Don't they? Good job I'm handy with a needle and thread or I'd never have a thing to wear."
"Mel, I would kill for your figure," said Gabi sternly. "Your tiny waist." She grimaced. "Your proper lady's bosom."
I smiled because it's rude to refuse a compliment, even if you don't quite believe it. "Oh no, you wouldn't. Bones are so much more elegant."
"I don't know," said Gabi, shooting a sideways glance in the direction of the photocopier. "Nothing worse than those posh Fionas who trail up and down outside, all skinny and blond like malnourished Afghan hounds," she went on, making sure Carolyn could hear her. "What a fecking waste of space they are. Chalet girls surfing the King's Road on Daddy's magic credit card, in between ironing their hair and planning their next ski trip."
Gabi said this at least once a day, yet it never apparently registered with her that I'd spent my year out running a chalet complex in Val d'Isère. I spent more time tidying up the various love affairs and broken friendships than I had done tidying chalets.
"Gabi, I was a chalet girl," I protested gently.
"Oh, yeah." She stared at me, then shook her head. "Jeez, I always forget you're one of them."
"Why?" I ignored the "one of them."
Gabi shrugged. "Well, you're working, for a start. And you just get on and do things. You don't keep banging on about how impossible it is to park a Land Rover in Chelsea these days and who your daddy is."
I was about to remind her why my father was the last person I'd want to be discussing when the office door opened and the boys steamed in, fresh from one of their long lunches.
Only it occurred to me that this hadn't been a very long lunch and they weren't looking their normal jolly selves. In fact, there was no steaming at all.
"Early?" mouthed Gabi to me, looking at her watch.
"Yes, we are back early," snapped Quentin. "Because there's a lot to do."
Quentin was the company director and the main man for serious three-million-plus houses. He did nothing all year, until the City bonuses rolled in; then he was rushed off his feet. Carolyn was meant to be his PA, but all she seemed to do was book mysterious lunches with clients I knew he didn't have and order flowers for his very sweet and undeserving wife, Letitia.
The other boys slunk into their seats and started making subdued phone calls, which wasn't like them at all.
"Melissa, would you come into my office?" said Quentin. "And bring a pot of coffee and some cups with you."
"Oooh, Melissa," smirked Carolyn, who had reappeared out of nowhere. Her coral lipstick looked very fresh and brought out the nicotine stains on her teeth beautifully. Gabi swore blind that Carolyn couldn't be a day under thirty-five, despite the desperate palaver of her "thirtieth" birthday party the previous year. "It'll be about that skirt, I'd bet."
I tugged the hem down. It was my favorite skirt because I had spent ages microscopically adjusting the seams so it fitted at both the waist and the hips, but I must admit that it did have a habit of riding up. "What's wrong with it?" I asked.
"Nothing wrong with that skirt," said Hughy, and as he walked past, the cheeky article gave my bottom a firm slap. "Miss Monroe."
Gabi giggled and I blushed bright red.
Hughy hadn't joined the others for lunch, hence his cheerfulness; a while ago, I'd arranged for him to have private lunchtime Pilates lessons to cure his terrible back problems -- now all too cured, it seemed.
Carolyn's eyebrows dropped immediately and she looked as if her lunch was repeating on her.
"It's too short," she snapped. "You're in an office, not a cabaret."
Then she disappeared into her private office with a handful of brochures for Chelsea loft conversions.
"Ignore the scrawny witch," said Gabi loudly. She wagged her stapler at me. "Now, get in there and do some of that upside-down reading you're so good at, eh?"
"Will do." I pulled my hem down as far as it would go and checked that my white blouse was safely buttoned up. Then I made the coffee, got my notebook, and walked over to Quentin's office, wondering what it was I'd done that he wanted to discuss so privately.
Quentin was sitting at his desk with his fingers steepled and a serious expression on his face. I'd seen this expression before, on my father; it was the first stage of the school-report reading process, which would begin with an unconvincing display of sympathetic calm and end with Daddy bright red up to his ears, roaring, " 'Melissa must try harder'? Too bloody right she should, at eight thousand pounds a term!"
I steeled myself not to cry, whatever Quentin said, because I made it a rule never to cry in public: It doesn't help, except as a very, very last resort.
Quentin waited for me to sit down, and I perched on the edge of the leather chair with my knees clamped together, as drilled into us in home economics classes at school. I noticed that Carolyn hadn't been watering Quentin's weeping fig and made a mental note to give it a good soak later.
"Now then, the lovely Melissa," said Quentin unctuously. "Thanks for the coffee. How long is it you've been with us now?"
It was a stupid question, because my file was open on the desk in front of him. A file that I myself had made, since the filing system had been a disaster when I arrived. But I di...
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