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It is with great pleasure that I introduce Madeline Holland, our new chief operating officer, based in Sydney."
As the smattering of polite applause died away, the acting chair peered over his specs down the table at her. "Please tell us a little about yourself, my dear. I know you spent many years with Global Hospitality "
Madeline returned his smile, smoothed the skirt of her smart burgundy skirt and started to rise.
Suddenly the door flew open and banged against its stop with a crack. All eyes swiveled to assess the intrusion. Beside her, Madeline felt her best friend, Kay, tense and prepare to rise. Kay was regional manager of the three Premier Hotels here in Queenstown, New Zealand, so security came under her domain.
A tall, lean, impeccably dressed man stood framed by the doorway, holding a stack of glossy files. Half standing, half crouching, Madeline glanced at his face and her throat snapped shut. Dear God, it was him! Her fantasy lover of the night before.
The punch of adrenaline rocked her all the way to her heels. Her smile froze as she stared at his longish dark-blond hair, the model stubble along his jaw, his aquiline nose and sharply cut upper lip. She closed her eyes, remembering mesmerizing sea-green eyes, hazed over with passion but now thankfully hidden by sunglasses.
No, no, no
Her breath came back in a strangled gasp and she eased herself back down in her seat, praying the floor would open up and swallow her. Had he known who she was? As she'd writhed in his strong arms during the night, had he, even then, been thinking about crashing this closed meeting today?
She shrank in her seat.
The man gave a cursoryall-inclusive glance around the boardroom table and moved forward into the room. "Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Lewis Goode." He commenced handing out files while Madeline kept her eyes resolutely lowered. Would he acknowledge her? Would he smile, smug in the knowledge that he'd seen her sans clothing, inhibitions, coherence? Her heart pounded against her rib cage.
His hands now empty, he strode to the front and offered his hand to the acting chair, who smiled broadly, and took a seat at the side of the table.
Lewis Goode took off his sunglasses, slipping them into his inside pocket, raised his head and surveyed the table. "Some of you here will know me."
He gave a brief smile at the six places on both sides closest to him, made up mostly of the directors of the board. Then he lifted his head to take in the rest of the Executive Committee.
Madeline hunched even lower, her fingers gripping the table edge lest she lose her nerve and bolt. She shouldn't even be here since she was not a member of the Executive Committee. Neither was Kay, but as she'd organized the annual conference here in Queenstown, she had asked for permission to attend and bring Madeline along to be introduced as the newest member of the team.
"For those who don't know me," the man said, "I am now the majority shareholder and new chief executive of Premier Hotel Group."
A collective gasp rose up from Madeline's half of the table, but most of the directors up front did not look surprised. Madeline, however, fought against covering her mouth lest she groan out loud.
She had slept with her new boss.
"Yesterday morning," Lewis continued, "the Australian Securities and Investments Commission approved the corporate takeover I initiated a year ago. For those of you on the board who supported me, I thank you. For those who didn't" he paused ominously as the assembled guests cast surreptitious glances toward the top of the table "there is nothing I admire more than loyaltyto me. If you cannot commit to that, then you only have to make your position known and I will see that you get a fair termination package."
All eyes scrutinized the implacable faces of the directors of the board.
"As with any corporate takeover, we are embarking on a settling-in period," Lewis Goode continued. "There will be reviews, and all executives will be required to reapply for their jobs."
Her friend Kay turned to her, a look of dismay and apology on her face. Kay didn't realize it but she had more to apologize for than persuading Madeline to give up a perfectly good job to apply for the Premier Hotels position. She had also unwittingly provided the magical setting for Madeline's indiscretion last night.
But at the time, it had felt so uncannily right
"Except," Lewis went on, "for the man I've replaced, Jacques de Vries, whose contract is terminated immediately." Again a gasp went around most of the table. Jacques de Vries was iconic, the founder of this massive global hotel company. "And" Lewis paused and looked straight at Madeline, sending her nerves jangling in panic "Madeline Holland, who will take up her position as COO, Australia and New Zealand division, as planned."
Madeline's breath huffed out and she tore her eyes from his face. Kay's somber expression lightened considerably, her relief evident that she hadn't persuaded Madeline to return to the Southern Hemisphere after twelve years away, only to be made redundant.
Madeline envied her friend her ignorance. How, she wondered, agonizingly close to tears, could she ever live this down?
Her gut jumped again as she realized Lewis Goode's eyes still bored into her face. Get me out of here, she prayed.
Lewis smiled thinly, as if he could clearly see the path of her thoughts. "Your reputation in operations and administration precedes you, Ms. Holland. Your first job will be to relocate the head office of Premier from Singapore to Sydney. I look forward to working closely with you on that."
Kay nudged her, smiling, but Madeline was still reeling from the force of his gaze and his smile; the inflection he placed on the word closelyand from the fact that he had just given himself away. Your reputation precedes you So he had known exactly who she was last night.
Somehow she pasted a semblance of a smile onto her mouth and held it there, but confusion and a slow-burning anger nipped at the heels of her panic.
Finally Lewis took his eyes off her hot face. "I look forward to getting to know all of you over the next few days while we enjoy the annual Premier conference in this beautiful part of New Zealand's South Island. But now, I would like to talk to the board of directors, so if everyone else would kindly excuse us."
A flurry of chairs scraping and excited whispers ensued while everyone not at the head of the table rose and collected papers and briefcases. Madeline kept her head down and forced herself not to push as she made for the door. Thankfully, once outside, Kay was diverted by several colleagues, giving Madeline a chance to regroup and compose herself.
The delegates huddled around Kay. "Did you know about this?"
Kay shook her head. "I've heard rumors but I don't think anyone expected it so soon."
Madeline leaned against the wall, the conversation largely washing over her. Everyone wanted to know how this could have happened or, more important, how the powerful Jacques de Vries could have allowed it to happen.
Madeline couldn't care less about the former CEO. She wanted to know what the new CEO had been thinking of when he'd whisked her to bed last night. Unbidden, her mind bombarded her with myriad images of well-honed muscle and sinew over tanned skin, the feel of him wedged deep inside her body, his lips pulled back in a grimace of ecstasy.
She pressed against the wall, her nipples tingling with the memory. Twenty-eight years old and she hugged a wall, feeling ashamed and insignificant. She was transported back twelve years to another episode of her own making, the one that instigated her decision to leave her mother, friends and home town. Madeline had worked tirelessly to erase the insecure, inhibited girl she'd been. And she thought she'd been successful.
Oh, why had she let Lewis Goode seduce her last night?
Kay broke away from the group and turned to her. "I could use a drink," she muttered. "My office or the bar?"
Madeline pushed away from the wall. "Office." Anywhere, she thought, away from people.
"I'm sorry, hon. I didn't see this coming." Kay stopped at her secretary's desk and looked at Madeline. "Is chardonnay okay?"
Madeline nodded and Kay requested a bottle and two glasses be brought up from the bar.
They continued on into Kay's office.
"I should have warned you this was a possibility."
Madeline shrugged. How could she be anything but grateful to her old school friend? While she'd been relentlessly climbing the corporate ladder, it was Kay who'd kept an eye on her mother, who notified her of the old woman's slide into Alzheimer's disease, who'd persuaded Madeline to apply for a job closer to home. She'd even organized her mother's move into the retirement village.
Kay plopped down behind her desk, gesturing for Madeline to sit. "I honestly thoughtwe all didthat Jacques was way too strong to let something like this happen. He started this company, you know." Kay raised her cell phone and began to text expertly. "Obviously the board of directors thought differently."
Madeline had never met the former CEO, but his name was legend in the hotel industry. Premier Hotel Group was largely Australasian but there were a smattering of hotels in the United States, where her old company, Global Hospitality, was based.
Kay's face brightened. "You must be relieved not to have to reapply. I wonder if that applies to regional managers."
"Your guess is as good as mine," Madeline murmured distractedly. "Tell me about Lewis Goode." After all, she only knew the little stuff, like the naked desire in his eyes as he'd slowly undressed her, the heat of his skin when she touched him. His clever hands and mouth "I've heard his name, I think" Not last night, she hadn't "but I didn't realize he had anything to do with the hotel industry."
"He doesn't, to my knowledge." Kay waved her fingers vaguely at the coffee table behind Madeline, where she kept her stash of business magazines. Madeline riffled through a couple.
Her heartbeat kicked up when Lewis Goode's handsome, somber face stared up at her from the second magazine. She obviously read the wrong business publications. The face was unforgettable.
"He owns a lot of companies, notably Pacific Star Airlines," her friend went on. "Bought it for a song about five years ago, and now it's the second biggest airline in the Pacific."
Madeline stopped poring over the photo and flicked to the article, justifying her ignorance by acknowledging the geographical distance. After all, she'd been based in the States and came home rarely. And she'd only applied for the Premier job less than a month ago.
How did he know who she was? And why didn't he disclose his identity? Never mind that in the surreal ambiance of the Alpine Fantasy Retreat, the scene of last night's unexpected rendezvous, they'd playfully decided not to divulge any personal details to each other, including their names. What was he hoping to gain, apart from a cheap thrill? Madeline wasn't in a position to assist with the corporate takeover.
She was, however, in an unenviable situation. "Hopefully he'll play with his planes and leave the hotel business to those who know it."
"From what I've heard, he's sharpa hands-on boss," Kay commented.
Oh, if only you knew, Madeline thought.
"It's me who should be worried," Kay said grimly. "Just between usand since you're my new boss, I'm trusting you, herewe're really struggling. Pray for a fantastic ski season."
Madeline stopped wallowing in self-pity long enough to take in her friend's words. Both women had started at the bottom and, over the years, worked their way up through the ranks, studying in their free time to get ahead. Madeline advanced her career with a different hotel chain, travelling, taking the postings no one else wanted, to reach a level of success she could only have dreamed about. Kay made regional manager last year after a decade in the trade, barring a year off when her twins were born.
"Even if things aren't great," Madeline reasoned, "he wouldn't be a very savvy CEO if he pulled Premier from the number-one tourist destination in New Zealand."
Queenstown's reputation as an adventure playground and ski resort gave it the happy dilemma that it didn't have an off season. There were literally hundreds of accommodation options to choose from in the tiny town. Premier, with its Waterfront, Lakeside and Mountainview Hotels, held prime positions in the town. In fact, when she and Kay started in the business, the three Premier Hotels were the single largest employer in town.
The door opened and Kay's secretary entered, carrying a tray with a bottle and two glasses. "There is a Mr. Lewis Goode outside to see you. He doesn't have an appointment.