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Jaya Powers heard the helicopter midmorning, but Theo Makricosta still hadn't called her by five, when she was technically off the clock. Off the payroll in fact, and leaving in twelve hours.
Ignoring the war between giddiness and heartache going on in her middle, she reminded herself that normal hours of work didn't confine Mr. Makricosta. He traveled so much that sometimes he couldn't sleep, so he worked instead. If he wanted files or records or reports, he called despite the time and politely asked her for them. Then he reminded her to put in for lieu or overtime and thanked her for her trouble. He was an exceptionally good man to work for and she was going to miss him way beyond what was appropriate.
Staring at herself in the mirror, packed bags organized behind her, she wondered why she was still dressed in her Makricosta Resort uniform. She gave herself a pitying headshake. Her hair was brushed and restored to its heavy bun, her makeup refreshed, her teeth clean. All in readiness for his call.
After everything that had sent her running from her home in India, she never would have seen herself turning into this: a girl with a monumental crush on her boss.
Did he know she was leaving and didn't care? He'd never overstepped into personal, ever. If he had any awareness that she was a woman, she'd be shocked.
That thought prompted her to give a mild snort. If she hadn't seen him buy dinner for the occasional single, vacationing woman, always accompanying her back to her room then subsequently writing off her stay against his personal expense account, she'd have surmised he wasn't aware of women at all.
But he hooked up when it suited him and it made her feel odd. Aware and dismayed and kind ofjealous.
Which was odd because she didn't want to sleep with him. Did she?
A flutter of anxious tension crept from her middle toward her heart. It wasn't terror and nausea, though. It wasn't the way she typically felt when she thought of sex.
It wasn't fireworks and shooting stars, either, so why did she care that she might not have a chance to say goodbye?
Her entire being deflated. She had to say goodbye. It wasn't logical to feel so attached to someone who'd been nothing but professional and c/etached, but she did. The promotions and career challenges alone had made him a huge part of her life, whether his encouragement had been personal or not. More importantly, the way he respected her as useful and competent had nurtured her back to feeling safe in her workplace again. He made her feel like maybe, just maybe, she could be a whole woman, rather than one who had severed herself from all but the most basic of her female attributes.
Did she want to tell him that? No. So forget it. She would leave for France without seeing him.
But rather than unknotting her red-and-white scarf, her hand scooped up her security card. She pivoted to the door. Stupid, she told herself as she walked to the elevator. What if he was with someone?
A few minutes later she swiped her damp palms on her skirt before knocking on his door. Technically this fortieth floor villa belonged to the Makricosta family, but the youngest brother, Demitri, wasn't as devoted to duty as Theo, flitting through on a whim and only very seldom. Their sister, Adara, the figurehead of the operation, timed her visits to catch a break from New York winters, not wasting better July weather elsewhere when it was its coolest here in Bali.
TheoMr. Makricosta, she reminded herself, even though she thought of him as Theowas very methodical, inspecting the books of each hotel in the chain at least once a quarter. He was reliable and predictable. She liked that about him.
Licking her lips, she knocked briefly.
The murmur inside might have been "Come in." She couldn't be sure and she had come this far, so she used her card and
"I said, Not now," he stated from a reclined position on the sofa, shirt sleeves rolled up and one bare forearm over his eyes. In the other hand he held a drink. His jaw was stubbled, his clothes wrinkled. Papers and file folders were strewn messily across the coffee table and fanned in a wide scatter across the floor, as though he'd thrust them away in an uncharacteristic fit. His precious laptop was cocked on its side next to the table, open but dark. Broken?
Blinking at the mess, Jaya told herself to back out. Men in a temper could be dangerous. She knew that.
But there was something so distraught in his body language, in the air even. She immediately hurt for him and she didn't know why.
"Did something happen?" she queried with subdued shock.
"Jaya?" His feet rose in surprise. At the same time he lifted his arm off his eyes. "Did I call you?" Spinning his feet to the floor in a startling snap to attention, he picked up his phone and thumbed across the screen. "I was trying not to."
The apology sounded odd, but sometimes English phrasing sounded funny to her, with its foreign syntax and slang. How could you try not to call someone?
"I don't mind finding whatever paperwork you need," she murmured, compelled to rescue the laptop and hearing the door pull itself closed behind her. "Especially if you're dismayed about the way something was handled."
"Dismayed. Yeah, that's what I am." He pressed his mouth flat for a moment, elbows braced on his wide-spread thighs. His focus moved through her to a place far in the distance. With a little shudder, he skimmed his hands up to ruffle his hair before staring at her with heartrending bleakness. "You've caught me at a bad time."
For some reason her mouth went dry. She didn't react to men, especially the dark, powerfully built, good-looking ones. Theo was all of those things, his complexion not as dark as her countrymen, but he had Greek swarthiness and dark brown hair and brows. With his short hair on end, he looked younger than his near thirty. For a second, he reminded her of the poorest children in India, the ones old enough to have lost hope.
Her hand twitched to smooth his disheveled hair, instinctively aware he wouldn't like anyone seeing him at less than his most buttoned-down.
He was still incredible. His stubbled jaw was just wide enough to evenly frame his gravely drawn mouth while his cheekbones stood out in a way that hollowed his cheeks. His brows were winged, not too thick, lending a striking intelligence to his keen brown eyes.
They seemed to expand as she looked into them. The world around her receded .
"We'll do this tomorrow. Now's not a good time." The quiet words carried a husky edge that caused a shiver of something visceral to brush over her.
She didn't understand her reaction, certainly didn't know why she was unable to stop staring into his eyes even when a flush of heat washed through her.
"I can't take advantage of your work ethic," he added. "It could undermine our employer-employee relationship."
Appalled, she jerked her gaze to the floor, blushing anew as she processed that she'd been in the throes of a moment and hadn't even properly recognized it as one until her mooning became so obvious he had to shut her down.
How? In the past few years, any sort of sexual aggression on a man's part had stopped her heart. Terror was her reaction and escape her primary instinct. Wistful thoughts like, I wonder how his stubble would feel against my lips, had never happened to her, but for a few seconds she'd gone completely dreamy.
Her body flamed like it was on fire, but not only from mortification. There was something else, a curiosity she barely remembered from a million years ago when she'd been a girl talking to a nice boy at school.
If she had the smarts she always claimed to, she'd let his remark stand. She'd excuse herself to Marseille and never be seen again.
At the same time, as discomfited as she was, her ability to have a moment was so heartening she couldn't help standing in place like someone testing cold waters, trying to decide whether to wade farther in.
Not that she'd come here for that. No, she wanted to say goodbye and he'd given her an opening.
"Actually, we don't have that kind of relationship anymore." With jerky movements she set his laptop on the coffee table and pressed the lid closed. "Today was my last day. I should have changed, but I'm having trouble letting go."
He sat back, hands on his knees, taken aback. "Why wasn't I informed? If you're moving to the competition, we'll match whatever they're offering."
"That's not it." She sank onto the seat opposite him and grasped her hands together so she could portray more composure than she actually possessed. Emotions rose as she realized this was it, no more uniform, no more career with the Makricosta hotel chain, no more Theo. Her voice grew husky. "YouII mean the companyhave been so good with training me and offering certifications. I would never throw that in your face and run to the competition."
"We believe in investing in our employees."
"I know, but I never dreamed I could go from chambermaid to the front desk in that kind of time, let alone manage the department." She remembered how frightened she'd been of getting in trouble for leaving her cleaning duties when she'd brought a lost little boy to the office, hovering to translate until his parents were located. Theo happened to be conducting one of his audits and was impressed by her mastery of four languages and ability to keep a little one calm.
"My confidence was at a low when I began working here," she confessed with a tough smile. "If you hadn't asked me if I planned to apply for the night clerk job I wouldn't have thought I'd even be considered. I'm really grateful you did that."
There. She'd said what she had wanted to say.
"My sister would disown me if I turned into a sexist," he dismissed, but his gaze went to his phone. His despondency returned to hover in the room like a cloud off dry ice. She sensed that whatever news was affecting him, Adara Makricosta had delivered it.
"Where are you going, if not two doors down?" he asked abruptly.
She lifted her gaze off the strong hands massaging his knees. He wasn't as collected as he was trying to appear.
For some reason, she wanted to take those hands and hold them still and say, It 'll be okay. You 'd be surprised what a person can endure.
"France," she replied, not wanting to talk about her situation, especially when it appeared he was only looking for distraction from his own troubles. "Marseille. It's a family thing. Very sudden. I'm sorry." She wasn't sure why she tacked on the apology. Habits of a woman, she supposed, but she was sorry. Sorry that she had to leave this job, sorry she was inconveniencing him, sorry that her cousin was dying.
She felt her mouth pulling down at the corners and ducked her head.
"You're not getting married, are you? This isn't one of those arranged things?" He sounded so aghast she had to smile. Westerners could be so judgmental, like all his relationships were love matches rather than practical arrangements.
"No." She lifted her head and he snagged her into another moment.
It occurred to her why she didn't feel threatened by this. They'd had a million of these brief engagements, all very short-lived. For over four years, she'd been glancing up to catch him watching her and he had been looking back to his work so smoothly she had put the charged seconds down to her imagination, convincing herself he didn't even know she was alive.
Our employer-employee relationship
Was that what had kept him from showing interest before? It wouldn't surprise her. He held himself to very high standards, never making a false move.
But if that was what had held him back, what did it mean for her right now, when she was alone with him in this suite and he knew she was no longer off limits?
Ingrained caution had her measuring the distance to the door, then flicking a reading glance at him.
The air of masculine interest surrounding him fell away and her boss returned. "This is a blow to the company. I'll provide you a reference, of course, but would a leave of absence be more appropriate? Should we keep your job open for you?"
His sudden switch gave her tense nerves a twang, leaving her unsettled. Men never seemed to get her messages to back off. Having Theo read her so clearly was disturbing.
"INo." She shook her head, trying to stay on topic, tempted to say she'd return, but Saranya's cancer made it very unlikely. She hated to even think about it, but she'd been through it with Human Resources and had to get used to reality. "I'm moving in with my cousin and her husband. She's very ill, won't survive. I'm close with their daughter and she'll need me."
"I'm sorry. That's rough."
She absorbed the quiet platitude with a nod.
"I don't mean to sound crass, but would money help?" he added.
"Thank you, but that's not the issue. My cousin's husband is very well-off. They were extremely good to me when I left India, taking me in until I was able to support myself. I couldn't live with myself if I wasn't with them through this."
Did he? His family seemed so odd. Estranged almost. His remark about his sister a few minutes ago was as personal as she'd ever heard him speak of her. The few occasions when she'd seen any of them together, none had shown warmth or connection.
Who was she to judge, she thought with a jagged pain? She'd been disowned by her family.
He seemed to have equally dismal thoughts. His gaze dropped to the papers still scattered across the floor. He picked up his drink, but only let it hang in his loose fingers.
"Do you want to talk about whatever is troubling you?" she asked.
"I'd rather drink myself unconscious." He sipped and scowled, "But I only have watered down soda, so " He set it aside and stood, giving her the signal that heart-to-heart confessions were off the table.
She tried not to take it as a slight. He was a private man. This was the most revealing she'd ever seen him.
"I'm sorry we won't be working together any longer, Jaya. Our loss is the hoteliers in Marseille's gain. Please contact me if you're interested in working for Makricosta's again. We have three in France."
"I know. Thank you, I will." She swallowed and wondered if she would turn into a complete fool and start to cry. Standing, she put her hand in his and tried for one firm pump with a clean release.
He kept her hand in his warm one. His thumb grazed over the backs of her knuckles.
Her skin tingled and her stomach took a roller coaster dip and swoop.
She looked at his eyes, but he was looking at their hands. Her fingers quivered in his grip as he turned her palm up. She almost thought he was going to raise it to his lips. He looked up and the swooning dip hit harder. That was a sex look.
But it was Theo's eyes, Theo's expression that was always so aloof but now glowed with admiration and something else that was aggressive and hungry. He skimmed his gaze down her cheek to her mouth and sensations like fireworks burst through her. Zinging streaks of heat shot down her limbs and detonated her heart into expansive pumps.
She was experiencing sexual excitement, she interpreted dazedly, and the sensations grew as he stepped closer and lowered his head. He was going to kiss her!
She stiffened with apprehension and he straightened. Her hand wound up hanging in the air ungrasped as he pulled in a strained breath from the ceiling. "You're right. It's not appropriate." Weary despair returned like a cloak to weigh down his shoulders. "I apologize."
"No, I" Please let her dark skin disguise some of these fervent blushes. "You surprised me. I came in here reminding myself not to call you Theo. I didn't think you thought about me like that. I would" Was she really going to risk this? She had to. She'd never get another chance. "I'd like it if you kissed me."