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She was going to be late. Late. Late. Late.
The heels of Bella's shoes snapped out the word with every step, rebuking her, condemning her, telling her she would never measure up. She glanced at her watch and told herself to stop being absurd. She'd make the meeting exactly on time. She was being paranoid, that was all.
Still, she shouldn't have stopped to talk to Charlie. Or Emma. Or Sophie and Connor. She picked up her pace.
Failure. Failure. Failure.
What on earth had she been thinking?
Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.
She clenched a hand. Given what she'd overheard last week, she should've been more careful. She should've kept a closer eye on the time. She wanted to change her father's opinion of her, not reinforce it.
Spoiled, willful, doesn't have the sense of a goose! Bella doesn't know the meaning of the words 'dedication' and 'hard work'. That was what her father had said on the phone to her aunt in Italy last Wednesday. Bella had accidentally picked up the extension in the kitchen to ring out.
And it's my fault. She'd heard that before she could silently replace the receiver into its cradle.
She slowed to a halt, her throat constricting. The pain that had raked through her father's voice She closed her eyes and rested her head against the wall. Oh, Papa, I'm sorry.
To know she'd disappointed him so badly, hurt him. Again.
And to think he blamed himself.
She pushed away from the wall and straightened. She'd changed. The last eighteen months in Italy had seen to that. She would prove herself to him. She would make him proud of her.
As if to reassure herself, she rifled through the colour-coordinated folders she carried and then slapped a hand to her forehead. She'd left the sample menus in the canteen kitchen with Charlie!
She glanced at her watch and then tapped a foot. She could continue on to her father's office and be on time. Or she could race back down to the canteen, grab her menus and prove to her father and his right-hand man, Dominic Wright, how fabulously organised and creative she was and be a teensy bit late, which her father expected anyhow.
Organisation, creativity and proof of her dedication versus punctuality? Muttering an imprecation, she spun on her heel and sped back the way she'd come. Pulling in a breath, she started to jog. She rounded the corner, heard the faint 'ding' of the lift in the distance and broke into a run. She sprinted around the next corner
'Hold the lift!'
But the lift doors closed before she could reach them. She pressed the button on the wall one time, five times, but the doors didn't open. The light above informed her that the lift had started its descent. She slapped a hand to the wall. Darn!
Pulling in a breath, she pushed her shoulders back. Okay, she could kiss her menus goodbye for the moment, but hopefully her colour-coordinated folders would at least give the impression of organisation and creativity.
She swallowed. As long as no one quizzed her too deeply about the contents of said folders. Katie, her father's secretary, had sent the main file through to her only last night with a pleading, For all you hold sacred, please don't tell your father how late I am on this! Bella hadn't had time to do more than print the file off. She'd reserved this afternoon for poring over its contents.
She glanced at her watch. If she put her skates on, she wouldn't be late to the meeting after all.
She put her skates on.
Professional, she lectured as she sped down the corridor. Chin up, shoulders back. She had to exude confidence and competence. Especially competence. She had to prove to her father that his faith in her wasn't misplaced.
If he actually had any faith left in her.
She pulled in a giant breath as she was ushered into her father's office. She took one look at him and had to fight the urge to rush across and kiss his cheek, to envelop him in a hug and tell him how much she loved him and how much she had missed him while she'd been in Italy.
Professional. She had to be professional. Kissing him, hugging him, would not earn her his respect. Especially as he wasn't alone. She gripped her folders more tightly and resisted the superstitious urge to cross her fingers. She didn't need superstition. She needed a chance to prove herself, that was all.
Marcello Luciano Maldini turned to her. 'You're late!' he snapped.
She glanced at her watch and raised an eyebrow.
He glanced at his watch and scowled.
Oh, how she wished he would smile!
He didn't smile. She did. She was so glad to see him. She was so glad to be here. She was so grateful to him for this opportunity. She did her best to not make the smile too broad, though. She did her best to make it professional and polite. 'Good morning, Papa. If I am late, then I am most sincerely sorry.'
He blinked and for a moment she thought he might apologise for his gruffness, perhaps even admit that she hadn't been late.
He didn't. He folded his arms and glared. 'My secretary rang your mobile phone and left a message informing you that the meeting was to be brought forward fifteen minutes.'
She was late! And all because she'd turned off her phone so it couldn't distract her from the most important meeting of her life.
She gripped her folders so tightly she broke a nail. 'I'm sorry. I turned it off so it wouldn't disturb my preparations for our meeting.'
Her father huffed out something she didn't quite catch and turned away. All her old fears surfaced: Failure. Stupid. Fool. She did her best to beat them back.
'Dominic, I would like you to meet my daughter, Bella Maldini. Bella, this is Dominic Wright.'
As the man turned towards her, she opened her mouth to say, 'Pleased to meet you,' but the moment her eyes collided with the Mediterranean blue of his, the words evaporated.
Dear Lord. Blue eyes shouldn't make a girl speechless.
Nor should red hair.
But the combination.
She tried to expel the air held prisoner in her lungs. She hadn't believed Catriona and Cecily when they'd said he was gorgeous and that he had red hairtawny, red-gold, like a lion's mane.
Don't gape. Don't gape. Professional!
She cleared her throat. 'I'm, um Pleased to meet you, Mr Wright.' Her voice emerged high and strained, breathy. She bit back a groan. Where was professional?
'Dominic,' he corrected.
This was the man who held her entire future in his hands? Her white business shirt tightened around her ribs, constricting her breathing further. According to her cousins, Dominicwith his looks and his charmwas the most dangerous man in Sydney. Break-your-heart dangerous. They'd said he'd eat a little virgin like her for breakfast.
All silly, teasing nonsense, of course.
To be honest, he looked more like 'scary boss' material than the playboy Cat and Cecily had reported, and he was eyeing her up and down right now with those mesmerising eyes as if he could sum her up in all of ten seconds. As if she only had ten-second's worth of value to sum up.
He didn't say he was pleased to meet her. He didn't smile.
With a super-human effort, she kept her smile in place. 'For form's sake, you're supposed to say that you're pleased to meet me, too, Dominic.'
His grin when it came was slow and crooked. It hitched up the right side of his mouth. The creases around his eyes deepened. The blue of his eyes intensified. 'I'm pleased to meet you, Bella.'
Just for a moment the room receded, and then with a roar it came rushing back. Uh-huh. So her cousins had been right, then.
Heavenly, golden, gorgeoustick, tick, tick. Temptation personifiedtick.
When Dominic held out his hand, she took it automatically. She couldn't manage a single solitary syllable. His hand curved around hers and he simply held it.
Her pulse throbbed.
'Delighted,' he murmured.
She found her voice. 'Absolutely.'
She tugged her hand free and went back to clutching her folders, did what she could to ignore the tingling that the palm-on-palm contact had triggered against her bare skin. For all his tawny goldenness and the warmth of his smile, he was known as The Iceman. And don't you forget it!
It didn't change the fact that he was the one man who could sway her father's opinion. She would have to tread carefully.
'If you've finished sizing each other up,' her father said brusquely, 'can we sit and get this meeting underway? Comesit, sit.' He shooed them to their seats.
From beside her, Dominic's heat beat at her. She kept her eyes on her father. Professional.
Marco steepled his hands on his desk. 'Dominic, I want you and Bella to work on the Newcastle Maldini,' he said without further ado. 'I want the pair of you to have it ready for the grand opening in eight weeks' time.'
Triumph surged through Dominic. Years of training, though, ensured he didn't betray that triumph by so much as a flicker of an eyelid. Taking charge of Marco's flagship hotel was the first step in taking over sole management of the Maldini Corporation's fledgling tourism arm. If the Newcastle Maldini proved a success, then plans for expansion would forge aheada chain of five-star Maldini hotels in all the major cities in Australia. After that, the international marketNew York, London and Rome. The possibilities multiplied with exciting potential.
He'd wanted a change, needed it. Two and a half months ago he'd made his position clear to Marcoeither a sideways move within the Maldini Corporation or he'd look elsewhere. Heading up the corporation's tourism operations fitted the bill exactly. Marco had delivered on his promise and Dominic had every intention of ensuring the Newcastle Maldini not only met but exceeded Marco's expectations.
He hadn't counted on getting foisted with the boss's daughter, though.
He glanced across at her and his gut tightened. She looked nothing like the plump, dark-haired child from the photograph that sat in pride of place on Marco's desk. She looked nothing like the woman he'd imagined as he'd sat across from Marco at this very desk countless times in the past six years and listened as the older man had despaired of her. 'You want Bella to work on the hotel?' He didn't try to hide his disbelief and scepticism.
Bella stiffened. Then she leaned towards her father. 'You haven't told Dominic about your plans for us to work together before today?' Her mouth opened and then closed. She swallowed. 'But you made that decision last week.'
Marco slapped a hand down on his desk. 'I do things my way, young lady. This is my office and in my office my word is law.' He stabbed a finger at her. 'I'll run my company the way I see fit!'
She sat back. 'You didn't tell him because you thought he'd refuse to work with me.'
Marco's jaw worked but he didn't say anything. He didn't have to. To himself, Dominic acknowledged the truth of her accusation. If he'd known about this a week ago, even two days ago, he'd have constructed every argument available against it. And Marco would've given way. Marco didn't want to lose him.
He cleared his throat. 'Marco, exactly what role do you envisage for Bella at the hotel?'
His employer heaved out a sigh, lifted a hand and let it drop. 'Bella tells me she can create the restaurant of my dreams. Her expertise will be confined to the kitchens and dining rooms. You, of course, will be in charge of operations.'
He nodded. He hadn't expected anything less.
'And you, my girl' he turned to Bella 'will consult Dominic about everything.'
Dominic wasn't fooled for a moment. Behind that lush mouth and those caramel melt-a-man-to-his-seat eyes, Bella was fickle, capricious and unreliable. Marco had given her countless opportunities to establish herself in a profession, but she had squandered all of them. Her seeming compliance was merely a pleasing facade for Daddy's benefit. She might fool Marco, but Dominic had no intention of falling under the spell of that butter-wouldn't-melt smile. He was not his father's son.
'She knows nothing about management styles or systems,' Marco warned him. 'All she knows is cooking and kitchens, so you'll need to show her the ropes.'
Marco had to be joking, right? Bella wouldn't stick to this job any longer than she'd stuck to anything else. Marco might be prepared to waste his time and expertise on someone who wouldn't appreciate it, but Dominic had no intention of doing so.
He stared at Bella. She met his gaze unflinchingly. He glanced across at Marco, who gazed at Bella with all the love in his generous heart on display and something inside him started to ache. There weren't too many people Dominic could claim to love, but Marco was one of them. His jaw tightened. He forced it to relax. For Marco's sake, he owed Bella the benefit of the doubt, at least for the duration of this meeting. 'Okay.' He nodded. 'You think Bella has something of value to offer the hotel?'
Marco straightened. 'Bella,' he clipped out. 'Show us those menus you told me you've been slaving over. You said you'd have samples ready for today.'
She hesitated. 'There's a slight hitch with that, I'm afraid.' She crossed her legs and smoothed out her skirt with an aplomb that almost stole Dominic's breath. 'I've left the menus in the canteen kitchen. I was discussing them with Charlie earlier.'
There was an awkward pause. Dominic schooled his lip not to curl. He doubted the existence of any such menus. The way Marco studiously avoided meeting his eyes told him Marco thought them products of Bella's imagination, too.
'I can run down to the canteen now and retrieve them, if you like. Or I can outline them to you verbally.'
While he was tempted to call her bluff, Dominic didn't want her compounding lie with lie. He didn't approve of her, but he didn't want to embarrass Marco either. Marco deserved better than that.
He cleared his throat. Both Bella and Marco turned to him.
'Why don't we leave the menus for another day? There's plenty of time.' He nodded to the folders Bella held in her lap. 'Why don't you tell us what you've brought along instead?' He hoped she had something there that would make Marco proud.
Her tongue snaked out to moisten her lips. Her fingers curled around the folders until her knuckles whitened. Dominic leaned back. The pampered princess didn't have quite as much aplomb as he'd thought. She was nervous. Maybe he'd done her an injustice. Maybe this meant a lot to her.
'The folders, Bella,' he said gently. In his experience, folders meant show and tell. She wouldn't have brought them along if they didn't contain something that would show her off to good effect. He'd give her every chance to show off if it'd make Marco happy.
'These aren't anything particularly interesting.'
He didn't trust that shrug. It was too studied.
'These are simply the files my father sent me about the hotel, along with some information I've started to gather about Newcastle.'
She really had nothing? Did she seriously mean to take such blatant advantage of Marco?