A woman with black hair and a blue dress had been waiting on the steps of the villa to greet her. She came over and spoke through the open car window.
Beside her stood a young, studious-looking boy of around sixteen with dark eyes, an intelligent brow and ready smile. His most notable feature was a port wine stain on his left cheek the size of a tangerine, shaped like a map of France.
As soon as he saw Mel, his hand went to his cheek. Mel wished he wouldn’t be self-conscious as he was such a good-looking boy.
He ran to get her case.
“Please call me Mel.” As she climbed out of the car, the heat hit her as if an oven door had opened.
Extending her arm, the woman’s handshake was warm and genuine.
“I am Severina Vanka. My husband Ivan is the chauffeur, and this is my son, Mihovil. He will settle you in before your final interview with Mr Yurcich. I have things cooking which I must attend to.”
She looked harassed. Makso must be a hard taskmaster. Mel was feeling more uneasy as the interview loomed.
Mihovil gave a little bow.
“In English my name would be Michael, but you can call me Mihovil if you choose.”
“I like Mihovil,” Mel replied. “It’s a good strong name.”
Mihovil glowed. Mel guessed he was pleased his mother trusted him with this task.
“I wish to improve my English and learn about your country. You have come from London?”
“That’s right.” Mel took care with her pronunciation. The boy looked keen to learn.
“I have been teaching myself off the television. People speak very fast. I like that you speak slow.”
“You’re doing very well. Your English is good. Have there been many other candidates?”
“About twelve women and a man. None have returned. You’re last.”
Involuntarily, Mel gulped, her nervousness getting the better of her. They went into a small sitting-room.
“Mr Yurcich is on a conference call. Can I make you tea?”
“Tea would be lovely. I presume I’ll be interviewed by Mrs Yurcich, too, if I am to be her companion?”
Mel saw Mihovil hesitate as if he didn’t know what to say.
“I don’t know. Mrs Yurcich is not well. Makso says she must not see anyone. She has been only with the nurse.”
“That’s strange. I understood I was to be her companion. I want to help.”
“It is best if you ask Mr Yurcich about his wife.” Mihovil smiled.
Mel guessed there was far more going on in this household than was obvious. Families so often involved secrets; she had learned that through years of being a nanny. It wasn’t fair to push him and she certainly didn’t want to get him into trouble.
“Is it just you and your mother who work here?”
“And my father.” Mihovil smiled but she felt she saw a flicker of concern cross his face. “I must water the plants. I hope you have everything you need.”
What a serious young lad. Mel wondered about him long after he’d left.
After waiting a long time, Mel got fidgety. Makso was maybe busy, but she wasn’t going to wait for ever. The afternoon was waning.
If she was going to be sent home she’d need to catch a plane soon. She’d get a cancellation if she wasn’t at the airport too late.
Mel, never one to be inactive, believed in making things happen. She crept into the long passage, but no-one was around. If she walked further towards the back of the house she might find someone.
The interior of the villa was more impressive here. Alcoves in the wall with spotlights displayed superb Croatian artefacts. A terracotta bull in colours of parched earth – ochre, sandstone and burnt umber.
Opposite, Mel was captivated by a carved head of a beautiful girl. A simple masterpiece so well executed you could have reached out to touch the corncrake hair, the delicate chiselled eyebrows.
Without thinking, she did just that. From behind her, a loud voice boomed.
“I wouldn’t do that. All my treasures are alarmed.”