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Emma McKinley should have been nervous as she stepped off the elevator onto the Garrison Hotels" corporate floor. But her emotions had been wrung dry days ago.
It all started with her father's sudden death. Then she discovered McKinley Inns" massive debts. And then she learned of the bizarre financial offer made to her sister in order to save the family corporation.
The only thing left inside her now was a grim determination. And it was focused on Alex Garrison, the CEO of Garrison Hotels.
She clamped her bag against her Donna Karan blazer and marched her matching pumps straight down the marble-pillared hallway. She'd never been in the Garrison offices before, never had a reason to talk to her family's rivals. But it didn't take a genius to figure out the double doors at the far end would lead to Alex Garrison's inner sanctum.
She ignored the stares from admin staff whose desks were tucked into discreet alcoves along the way. Nobody seemed inclined to stop her. Just as well, she wasn't in a mood to be stopped. She might not have an appointment with Mr. Garrison, but she had a moral right to confront him in person.
How dare he take advantage of her little sister, Katie, mere weeks after the funeral, with his veiled threats and outrageous propositions?
Emma drew a breath into her tightening lungs.
Maybe she did have some emotion left in her after all. "Excuse me, ma'am," came a female voice on her left as the hallway widened into a posh reception area.
Emma didn't answer. She didn't glance across the desk at the woman, and she didn't break stride. Ten feet from his door. Eight feet.
"ma'am." The voice was louder this time, more strident as a neatly suited, thirty-something woman jumped up from her chair.
Five feet. "You can't go"
Emma clamped her hand around the elongated, ornate gold door handle.
Emma swung the door wide open.
Four men in dark suits, sitting at a round, mahogany meeting table, turned sharply to stare at her. Two were gray-haired, with bushy eyebrows and accusatory squints that told her she'd made a terrible blunder. The third was a younger, blond man. His sparkling blue eyes and restrained grin told her he welcomed the interruption.
The fourth man shot to his feet, pushing a leather chair backward with the motion. Dark-haired, dark-eyed and broad-shouldered, his stance told her he was more than ready to take on her and anybody else who breached his privacy. "I'm so sorry, Mr. Garrison," came the secretary's breathless voice from behind Emma. "I tried"
"Not your fault, Simone." The man's slate-gray gaze never left Emma. "Can I help you with something?"
Emma's grip tightened on her shoulder bag. Everyone else in the room faded to mist as her anger returned in force. She focused on Alex Garrison. "Did you think there was the slightest chance I'd let you get away with it?"
Simone gasped. "As you can see." Alex's jaw clenched over the steel-threaded words. "We're in the middle of a meeting."
"I don't care if you're"
"If you'd like to make an appointment."
"I would not."
"Then I'll have to ask you to leave."
"Do you know who I am?"
"I'll call security," said Simone. Alex raised his eyebrows, gazing blandly back at Emma. She realized with a jolt that he really didn't know who she was. How was that possible? Katie was the public face of McKinley Inns, sure. But."
"Do we need security?, he asked.
"I'm Emma McKinley."
His nostrils flared and he jerked back ever so slightly. Then, after a silent pause, he lifted a gold pen from the tabletop and tucked it into the breast pocket of his finely tailored jacket. His burgundy silk tie gleamed under the discreet lighting as he straightened to full height. "If you'll excuse us, gentlemen. I believe I can spare five minutes for Ms. McKinley."
The men started to rise.
Alex held up a broad hand. "Please. Ms. McKinley and I will use the boardroom."
He gestured to a wide oak door and indicated she should precede him.
She crossed the room and turned yet another ornate gold handle. The doorway opened into an impressively large board-room, dominated by an oblong table of polished, inlayed wood. The twenty chairs surrounding it were covered in burgundy leather, and a bank of windows running down one side let in the August sun that was hanging over uptown Manhattan.
She heard the door click shut, and she pivoted to face him. "I trust you can make this quick," he said, taking a single step toward her, planting his oxfords wide apart.
He was even larger and more impressive up close, with broad shoulders and a deep, muscular chest. Stark sunrays highlighted the uncompromising planes of his face. His chin was square, the set of his lips grim, and his eyes were the color of gunmetal gray after a glistening rain.
She got the feeling few people crossed him and lived to tell the tale. If she didn't know he'd been born with a silver spoon in his mouth, she'd swear he grew up on the streets of Brooklyn.
Not that any of it mattered. He wasn't getting his hands on her baby sister or their company.
"You are not marrying Katie," she stated bluntly.
He gave a careless shrug. "I believe that's up to Katie."
"My father isn't even cold in his grave."
"Doesn't change your financial situation."
"I can fix our financial situation." Maybe. Hopefully. They could always mortgage the Martha's Vineyard property.
Alex cocked his head to one side. "I can have your loan called within twenty-four hours. Can you fix your finances that fast?"
Emma didn't answer. He knew darn well she couldn't fix BARBARA DUNLOP 11 them that fast. It would take weeks, maybe months to work through the maze of mortgages, letters of credit and personal guarantees signed by her father.
Her chest tingled and tightened. Why, oh, why did her father have to die so young? She missed him desperately. And she'd counted on having his guidance for decades to come.
"Why do you even want McKinley Inns?, Garrison Hotels had dozens of properties, bigger, more opulent facilities. McKinley occupied a small, high-end niche, where Garrison could compete with any luxury hotel chain in the world.
"you're joking, right?"
She shook her head.
"Like anyone, I want to expand. And you're an opportunity."
"And you don't care who gets trampled in the process?, The man's reputation was well and truly deserved. Though his press coverage had become more flattering over the past months, Emma wasn't fooled. He was a coldhearted takeover artist who profited from other people's misfortune.
He took another step forward and crossed his arms over his chest. "I don't think Katie made the situation clear. I'm the one doing you a favor."
Emma's spine snapped straight. She tipped her chin to look him in the eyes. "By marrying my sister and taking over our company?"
"By saving your company from bankruptcy. you're insolvent, Ms. McKinley. If I don't take you out, somebody else will. That's the way capitalism works."
"Don't patronize me."
A cold grin flexed one side of his mouth. "Way I see it, this is a win-win."
"The way I see it, this is a lose-lose."
"That's because you're idealistic and impractical."
"At least I have a soul."
He shifted his stance. "Last time I checked, a soul wasn't a requirement for a business license in the state of New York."
"She will not marry you."
"Did she explain the deal?"
Yes, Katie had explained the deal. Alex wanted their company. But he'd spent thousands of dollars over the last two years improving his image, and he was afraid of negative publicity from preying on two newly bereaved sisters.
Oh, he still wanted to prey on them. He just didn't want anybody to know about it. Hence the cover of marriage and all the joyous goodwill that would go with it.
"She told me," said Emma tightly.
"Then you know you'll keep half the company." His impassive expression turned to a scowl. "And I'm crazy for offering you that much."
"You actually expect to buy a bride."
"At that price. Yeah."
Emma honestly didn't know what to say.
"Are we done?, he asked.
Were they done? What did she do now? Make a hollow threat? Storm out the door? Swear he'd never get his hands on her precious inns when they both knew that's exactly what he would do?
He seemed to sense her hesitation. "Nobody gets hurt," he said. "The publicity will help us both. The press will go nuts over the merging of two great hotel families. We'll feed the story to female reporters, who'll get all misty-eyed at"
She raked her bangs back from her forehead. "Are you listening to yourself?"
He blinked. "What do you mean?, "You don't find that plan just a little cold-blooded?, "Like I said, nobody gets hurt."
"What about Katie? What about David?, "Who's David?, "Her boyfriend. The sweet, gentle caring young man she's been dating for six months. He'll be heartbroken and humiliated."
Alex paused. For a second she thought she saw an actual emotion pass through his eyes. But then it was gone, replaced by hard gloss slate once again. "David will get over it. He can marry her later, when she's worth a lot more money."
Emma opened her mouth, but no sound came out. "What about you?, Alex asked into the silence. "I'm pretty upset," she answered, in the understatement of the century.
He rolled his eyes. "Your emotional state is irrelevant. Do you have a steady boyfriend?"
"No." And what did that have to do with anything?
"You marry me."
Emma reached out to grip the back of a leather chair, afraid she might lose it right there. "What?"
Alex stood there, looking for all the world like a rational person, while tossing out the most outrageous proposal she'd heard in her life. Marry him? Marry him?
"It doesn't really matter which sister," he continued without a thread of emotion in his voice. "I only picked Katie because she's"
"The pretty one," Emma finished, straightening away from the chair and squaring her shoulders. For some reason it killed her to have him of all people say it out loud. Not that everybody didn't think it. It was just that Alex cut to the heart of the issue with such dispassionate accuracy, that it hurt more than usual.
"I am not marrying you, and Katie is not marrying you." Alex's voice took on a soft warning note. "Option three is calling your loan. Then you get nothing."
Emma tightened her arm on her shoulder bag. "Option three is me working out the finances first thing tomorrow morning."
His mouth crooked in another half smile. "In that case, I'll leave my offer open for twenty-four hours."
She turned and stalked toward a side door. Her exit was all bluff and bravado, and they both knew it. For that alone, she'd never forgive him.
"No need, Mr. Garrison," she said tightly.
"Under the circumstances," he rumbled behind her, as she reached for the handle and twisted.
"You might want to call me AlexEmma."
She didn't turn back, but her name on his lips sent a shiver up her spine.