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He was staring at her again.
Her boss, Ryder Bramson.
Macy broke away from his unsettling gaze and re-focused on the meeting at hand. And yet her eyes drifted back to the Armani-clad man with the deep frown-line between his eyebrows. She knew Ryder Bramson by name—who didn't?—but she'd seen him in the flesh for the first time today when he and his team had arrived in Melbourne from the States to check on the progress of this special project.
At six foot three, with closely cropped brown hair and rugged features, she had a feeling he'd stand out wherever he was, yet that hardly explained the unexpected thrum of desire that had resonated through her bloodstream at her first glimpse of the man she'd been working under for the past two weeks. Or the way her breath caught slightly every time his coffee-brown eyes flicked to hers during the introductions.
Sitting tall and broad in his chair, he watched her now, his head turned at an arrogant forty-five-degree angle to the left as if no one was worthy of him looking them squarely in the face. Unbelievably disconcerting.
It wasn't as if she'd never been stared at before—it'd been one of the few constants in her life. Before she'd escaped to Australia at eighteen, she'd lived in a golden cage of wealth, luxury and limelight. The eldest of two children of a corporate giant and a Hollywood actress, she'd always drawn more than her fair share of unwelcome interest.
But this man's stare was different. More intense. More focused. As if he could see through every defensive layer of protection she'd ever constructed.
Macy shivered and looked back at the statistics in front of her.
Her accountant finished his address and, despite her straying thoughts, Macy smoothly took her cue. "You'll see the figures we've collected on each of Chocolate Diva's potential competitors in this report."
She passed a pile of bound documents to her personal assistant, who stood and distributed them to the people at the table.
Ryder accepted his and, without a glance, passed it directly to his secretary. "Tell me in your own words," he said, his voice deep and authoritative.
Not missing a beat, Macy explained her findings so far. "If we're to expand into the Australian marketplace we'll need to find a niche in the already well-supplied market of chocolate products. Taking our research and forecasts into consideration, we will likely recommend beginning with three of our current products, some adapted for the Australian consumer, inserted into current retail outlets. Also two brand-name shops, one each in the Sydney and Melbourne city centers."
She'd spent two weeks living and breathing this project before today's meeting with Ryder Bramson and his entourage. She knew the figures by heart. She and her small staff of two had put in ridiculously long days, cramming more into two weeks than even she had thought possible.
Yet, Ryder didn't seem impressed. His strongly featured face remained impassive, unmoved…except for every so often when he pierced her with that penetrating stare.
Her skin tightened across her entire body and her pulse kicked up a notch. But she schooled her expression to be as unresponsive as his, and continued with her explanations of the projected profit and loss analysis. She'd bet good money that stare was one of the reasons for his phenomenal success with his family's food empire—adversaries would always be off balance and employees desperate to perform their best for him.
She, however, would conceal how his calculating appraisal affected her. She'd grown up surrounded by powerful, emotionally remote men, starting with her father. The man who'd distanced himself from her when she was only thirteen and her mother had just died. Her understanding that in his grief-stricken state he couldn't cope with her resemblance to her mother hadn't lessened the pain. Especially when he'd been kinder to her sister, whose looks and personality didn't remind him so much of his dead wife.
Macy squared her shoulders. That experience had changed her, made her what she was. A strong, independent woman.
She could handle Mr. Bramson and his stare.
Glancing down at her laptop, she clicked a button and brought up a graph to show her point more clearly. It appeared on the LCD screens built into the conference table in front of the seven other people at the meeting. Six of them lowered their gazes to read.
The seventh kept his focus squarely on her, his head turned to the side at that almost insolent angle.
Macy felt a flush of nerves creep through her system — something she rarely felt in a business meeting, a place where she prided herself on being prepared and in control. Yet at this meeting, her boss barely seemed interested in the results he'd hired her to find. And when he looked at her like that, she found herself thinking more like a flesh and blood woman than a businesswoman. Her skin heated, her breathing became shallow.
No. She would not be sidetracked by biological responses to a man. Especially not now. There was no way she'd miss the chance to be Chocolate Diva's first Australian CEO.
She met his gaze. "Is there a problem with your screen, Mr. Bramson?"
He lifted his right eyebrow—the first reaction he'd revealed since arriving in the building thirty-five minutes earlier. "I haven't crossed the Pacific to look at graphs and reports that I could have studied from the comfort of my own office, Ms. Ashley."
Macy nodded, ignoring the unease in her stomach. Of course he hadn't. She flicked a switch and the screens went blank. Time for a change of direction—she was nothing if not flexible. Adaptable. Promotable.
When he'd headhunted her from her previous position— working for the corporate raider Damon Blakely, overseeing acquisitions of small companies —Ryder had made her a promise. During their phone interview, he'd said if this two-month project went well, she'd be in the running for the top job at Chocolate Diva—the high-end chocolate and candy brand—as it opened its doors in Australia. A job she wanted badly. The sort of job she'd been working toward since she graduated top of her class in her business degree. A major step toward her career goal of running a company at least the size of her father's.
So if the boss didn't want to be bothered reading reports, she was more than fine with that option. "We've prepared some samples of possible product variations for your team to try."
He'd been examining the other staff members at the table, and now turned his head in a slow, deliberate move to look at her again, his intense physical presence seeming to reach out and touch her from across the table.
She held his gaze, unwilling to blink or show the smallest sign of intimidation. "Perhaps you and your staff would like to take the afternoon to recover from jetlag, and we'll resume first thing in the morning with the product tastings."
His right brow again arched, as if Ryder Bramson never needed time to recover from any experience. He probably didn't.
Macy waited. It was his move.
Finally Ryder dipped his chin in one slow, yet precise nod. "If the product samples are ready, I'll try them now. The U.S. team can go back to the hotel and be back by 9:00 a.m. sharp."
The men and women in suits began assembling their papers and lifting briefcases, but Ryder's clear, deep voice carried across their noise. "Ms. Ashley, I have a phone call to make. I'll meet you back in here in ten minutes."
Macy nodded then resumed gathering the reports and folders off the table in front of her and stood.
Shaun, a lean, gray-haired American from Missouri, whispered on the way out the door, "Don't let him put you off, it's just his way. He's a good boss, but at home, they call him The Machine."
Macy nodded discreetly as Shaun peeled off in another direction. That was perfectly okay with her. She liked to focus on her work, do the best job she could. Faux friendships that often arose in workplaces were nothing more than a distraction, and she'd never been the gossip-at-the-water-cooler type.
In fact, it seemed Ryder Bramson might be the ideal boss…as long as she could contain her reactions to his gaze. Even now she could feel the pulse at her throat, the remnants of a warm shiver trailing down her spine.
Definitely a bad thing.
But she'd pandered to enough imaginings about her boss in the short time since they met. It was time to stop.
Ten minutes later, Macy looked around the meeting room, making sure everything was in place. She and her assistant, Tina, had collected ingredients yesterday to give Ryder's team a general idea of how the products could be adapted.
Tina walked in with a bowl of fruit pieces and laid it on the table. "How do you want to run this?"
Macy had planned the exercise for a group but it shouldn't be a problem to downscale. She moved a bowl of dried lychees an inch to the left to make everything line up more squarely. "While you make up the samples and hand them to Mr. Bramson, I'll explain the choices."
"Sounds good," Tina said as she turned on the chocolate fountain they'd filled with their own brand's imported rich, dark chocolate.
Movement in the corner of her eye caught her attention, and Macy turned. She took in Ryder Bramson filling the doorway—he'd removed both the charcoal business jacket and tie, and rolled up the sleeves of his teal-blue shirt. The dark hair on his strong forearms covered tanned skin, leading down to large, square hands with long fingers. Unbidden, the image of those hands roaming her skin filled her mind, those arms wrapped around her, pulling her close. Her gaze traveled up to his face, his full bottom lip, then to his eyes, which were regarding her with a lazy appraisal of their own.
Macy swallowed. Stepped back. Put a chair between them.
Tina looked up and smiled—the picture of a professional reaction. "Ah, Mr. Bramson, we're ready for you."
His eyes lingered on Macy for another long moment before they flicked to her assistant. "Tina, isn't it? Looks like you've done a great job here, but I won't keep you from your work. I'm sure Ms. Ashley will be able to help me."
Macy's heartbeat stuttered. She glanced at Tina and saw the question in her eyes. She knew Tina was rushing to get the information on potential retail sites together, and, as Ryder was the only person coming for the tasting now, it made sense for Macy to do this alone. But with the sexual charge in the room, with the way her insides melted every time her boss looked at her, she could well do with a chaperone—
Macy stopped herself mid-thought. What was she thinking? She'd never let herself be diverted from her
goals before, and she wasn't about to start now. She closed her eyes, took a breath, then opened them and smiled at Tina. "It's okay, I'll be fine here."
Tina paused a moment as if to reassure herself she really could leave, then bustled from the room.
Ryder strolled over and surveyed the food on the table before again meeting her eyes. "Where do you want me?"
She stilled, but Ryder's strong face remained impassive, dark eyes focused on her, no sign of teasing or flirting visible. Brilliant, now she was reading double entendres into his words.
She found a polite smile and pointed to the head of the table. "There will be fine."
Ryder took his seat and she sat in the chair to his right, in easy reach of all the ingredients, then slipped into the speech she'd been preparing in her mind. "The Diva Truffle Bar has tested well and is unique. At this stage we believe it will be able to enter the Australian market in its current form." The bar—crushed almond and honeycomb in a chocolate truffle, coated in their own brand chocolate—would be as much a hit here as overseas if her research was correct. "We've run some preliminary focus groups and the feedback from the tastings was overwhelmingly positive."
Ryder steepled his fingers under his chin, elbows on the armrests of his chair. But said nothing.
The silence threatened to stretch and leave her in the unfamiliar position of being flustered, so she took a breath and forged on with her spiel.
"The second product we're investigating as an option is Diva Drops." The dried fruit pieces smothered in a thick layer of their dark chocolate was their second highest selling line in the U.S., after the Truffle Bar. "Given your preference for Australian production using Australian products where possible, we might need to adapt some varieties. The cherries, cranberries and blueberries are harder to source here so we're looking into the viability of some locally grown fruit."
Ryder tipped his chin to the bowls in front of them. "Such as mango."
Macy nodded and picked up a piece of dried mango on a toothpick then held it beneath the stream of the chocolate fountain. "This is dried Bowen mango. It's in plentiful supply in the north during the summer and we have some early feelers out now with growers."
She waited till the chocolate solidified, then handed the toothpick to him, realizing too late that there was very little room on the end of the pick for both sets of fingers. His thumb and forefinger encircled hers, capturing her hand with a gentle clasp. Time seemed to still as her body reacted to the touch, from the heat in her hand right down to a tug of desire deep in the core of her being.
She'd been thinking of his hands only minutes before and his fingers were so firm, his palm radiating such warmth on the back of her hand that she was glad she was already sitting down.
Then he moved to grasp the toothpick at the very end and she let go. He lifted it slowly and as the chocolate and mango reached higher, his tongue appeared and took the food into the dark depths of his mouth before he slid the pick out through closed lips.
With a start, Macy realized she'd been staring, so she began stabbing toothpicks in other pieces of fruit, but this time, arranged them on a plate instead of handing them to him.
Keeping her eyes glued to her task, she asked, "What did you think?"
There was no response as she put several more pieces of dried mango through the chocolate fountain then onto his plate. Her eyes drifted back to him. He was watching her.
He cleared his throat. "Delicious."
The sensuality in his voice was unmistakable but Macy had no choice but to ignore it, despite the protestations of her body. She couldn't afford to ruin this opportunity. That Australian CEO position had her name on it, and if she got the job, hopefully Ryder Bramson would remain her boss for a long time. She needed to keep this professional relationship working optimally.