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Elena Sanchez looked up and down the long hallway, her heels clicking on the expensively tiled floor as she moved. There was no one behind the desk where she assumed a receptionist would normally sit, but then, it was lunch time. Even she had sneaked away from the office to come over here.
She glanced at the doors as she passed, searching for the one she needed, for the name of the man she had to see, whether she wanted to or not. And she really didn't want to. If her father wasn't desperate"if she wasn't desperate on her father's behalf"she probably would have gone the rest of her life without bumping into Chase Ramsey.
She certainly wouldn't have made a point of tracking him down.
When she saw his name printed in black block letters on the gold door plate at the end of the hall, her stomach jumped and she had the sudden urge to turn and run. But she'd made up her mind to do this, so she would.
Raising a hand, she knocked, and then wiped her damp palms on the sides of her red linen, knee-length skirt so he wouldn't realize how nervous she was if he shook her hand.
She heard mumbling from the other side, perhaps even a curse, followed by a grumbled, "Come in."
Twisting the knob, she pushed the dark wooden door open and stepped inside.
His office was huge, encompassing three large plate glass windows that overlooked downtown Austin. An oriental rug and two dark green overstuffed leather armchairs filled the space in front of his wide cherrywood desk.
Behind that desk, Chase Ramsey sat scribbling notes while he held the phone to his ear and carried on a somewhat heated conversation with whoever was on the other end of the line. He didn't bother looking up, even though she knew he must have heard her enter.
Not presumptuous enough to take a seat until invited, Elena stayed where she was, standing just inside the office door, clenching and unclenching her fingers around the strap of her purse that hung at her side.
He was as handsome as she remembered. Darn it. But in a darker, much more mature way"she hadn't seen him since they were teenagers.
His hair was as black as midnight, cut short, with just a hint of curl that fell over his forehead. And from what she could see above the desk, he filled his dark gray, expensive, tailored suit to perfection. Broad shoulders, expansive chest, tanned hands that looked strong enough to lift a small building.
Or stroke across a woman's thigh.
Oh, Lord. Where had that come from? She clutched the strap of her handbag more tightly and fought the urge to fan her face. Butterflies were flying in rapid formation through her stomach, making her weak in the knees.
So he had big hands. Big, dark, impressive hands. The fact that she'd noticed"and was apparently quite distracted by them"meant nothing. Except perhaps that it had been awhile since she'd had any decent, attractive male company. Even longer since a man had been near her thighs"with his hands or anything else.
She heard a click and blinked, raising her gaze back to the man behind the desk. While she'd been fantasizing about long, masculine fingers sliding beneath the hem of her skirt, Chase Ramsey had apparently finished his conversation and was now staring at her with an impatient, annoyed glint in his sharp blue eyes.
"Can I help you with something?" he asked.
Taking a deep breath and steeling her nerves, she stepped forward to stand between the two guest chairs angled in front of his desk.
"Yes, actually," she said, brushing a lock of hair behind her ear before resting her palm on the high back of one of the chairs. "My name is Elena Sanchez, and I'd like to talk to you about your interest in Sanchez Restaurant Supply Company."
She knew the exact moment he recognized her. Not just the name of her father's company as one he was in the process of taking over, but recognized her. Her name and possibly her features, if he remembered anything about her from all those years ago.
His eyes turned hard and dark, his mouth tightening to a thin, flat line. He dropped the pen in his right hand on top of the papers he'd been working on and leaned back in his chair, resting his elbows on the padded arms and steepling his fingers in front of him as he rocked back and forth, back and forth.
Inwardly, she cringed. Judging by his reaction to her presence, his memory was as impressive as his physical attributes.
And his disdain was justified, she knew. Two decades ago, she'd been a spoiled, high-strung teenager, and had treated a lot of people badly, Chase included.
Not that her youth could be used as an excuse. Everyone makes mistakes when they're kids, and sometimes those mistakes have to be paid for or made right.
This, Elena decided, was her punishment for having had a lousy attitude as an adolescent"coming face-to-face with Chase Ramsey again, and essentially having to grovel in an attempt to help her father save the family business.
It might not be easy, but she would step up and take her lumps like the mature adult she'd grown into.
A phone rang out in the hallway, but Chase ignored it. He just kept rocking in his high-priced leather desk chair, staring at her as though he could see straight through to her soul.
And maybe he could. She felt exposed down to the bone. She might as well have been standing in the middle of his office stark naked, instead of in one of her most professional dress suits.
The red linen skirt and matching jacket over a low-cut white blouse always made her feel powerful and in control. She'd worn it purposely this morning, knowing she would be facing the lion in his den.
But now she realized her choice of clothing made absolutely no difference. She could have been wearing a suit of armor and would be no less nervous about standing in front of Chase Ramsey, waiting for him to strip a few layers of skin off her hide or order her out of his office without even letting her explain her reason for being there.
Instead, he lifted one black eyebrow and sat forward again, the corners of his mouth twisting in the grim mockery of a smile.
"Elena Sanchez," he murmured coldly, pushing slowly to his feet and moving around his desk. "Now, there's a name I never thought I'd hear again. Can't say I ever expected you to saunter into my office, either."
He paused directly in front of her, with fewer than three feet of space between them. The air was thick and tense, and Elena found her lungs straining for breath with him standing in such close proximity.
Leaning back against the edge of the desk, he crossed his arms over his chest and pierced her with that glacial blue glare.
"I take it you're here to beg me not to buy out your daddy's business," he said, his tone only a notch above patronizing. "Sorry, sweetheart, but I didn't build Ramsey Corporation into a multimillion dollar company by falling for long lashes and a nice pair of legs."
He let his gaze travel blatantly down her body, past her breasts, her waist, her hips, until they caught and held on the expanse of leg left visible below the hem of her skirt, which fell just above her knees.
"No matter how shapely they might be," he added before dragging his eyes reluctantly back to her face.
It was her turn to raise a brow. She dropped her purse on the seat of one of the guest chairs and took a more defensive stance.
"I'm not here to beg you for anything. I came to speak with you about a business issue that's important to my family. And whether or not you find my eyelashes and legs attractive is completely inconsequential. We're both adults; we should be able to sit down and talk in a calm, professional manner without you ogling me like a parolee on his first visit to a strip club after twenty years in solitary confinement."
The muscles in Chase's cheeks twitched, and it took all of his willpower to keep from letting that twitch spread into a full-blown grin.
It had been almost twenty years since he'd seen or spoken to Elena Sanchez. Frankly, he'd never given a damn if he ever saw or spoke to her again. She was one of those painful memories from childhood that still oozed and bled if he let down his guard long enough to peel back the curtain between present and past.
Thankfully, he didn't do that very often. He hadn't thought about Elena in years. Not even, surprisingly, when he'd begun the process of buying out her father's restaurant supply company. To Chase, it was just another smart business move; the kind that had transformed him from a modest rancher's son to a millionaire and CEO of his own self-named corporation at the age of thirty-five.
Kicking away from the desk, he smoothed a hand over his tie and once again rounded his desk.
"By all means," he told her, waving toward one of the chairs on either side of her body, which she was holding nearly as still and rigid as a statue, "have a seat and we'll talk. Like adults. About business."
For a moment she didn't move, almost as though she expected his offer to be some sort of trap. Then her muscles began to relax and she took a sideways step to her left, perching on the edge of the chair that didn't hold her little red handbag.
Knees together, spine straight, she held her folded hands on her lap, looking every inch the debutante she'd been raised to be.
The image wasn't a pleasant one for Chase. It reminded him too sharply of the girl she'd been at fourteen. The same girl who'd bruised his heart and trampled all over it with the sharp little heels of her open-toed shoes.
Pushing aside those old hurts and the feelings they evoked, he met her eyes and tried to regard her just as he would any other business associate.
"All right," he said, leaning his forearms on the top of his desk, "I'm listening. What is it you need to speak with me about?"
"You're trying to buy out my father's"my family's" company, Sanchez Restaurant Supply," she said.
"I'm going to buy out your father's company," he corrected.
To her credit, his comment didn't upset her or cause her to back down.
"I'm here to ask you to reconsider your decision," she continued without flinching. "Or at the very least, to give my father a bit more time to come up with the money and resources necessary to save SRS."
"Does he think he can do that?" Chase asked, always interested in any new information that might help him get the upper hand or finalize a deal. "Come up with the financial backing, I mean."
She glanced away for just a split second, telling him she wasn't as confident as she was pretending to be.
"He thinks, given enough time, that he could get the company up and running successfully again. And I'm here to ask you to give him the time he needs because I'm worried about what will become of him if he loses SRS."
Her green eyes, surrounded by full black lashes that matched her long, flowing black hair, met his, wordlessly begging for his understanding and compassion.
Something warm began to unfurl low in his belly, but he clamped his jaw on his fist, and bit down on it. He'd been roped in by her soft eyes and sultry features before, and gotten kicked in the teeth for his trouble. He wouldn't let her lull him again.
"The company is his life," Elena went on. "He built it from the ground up, when he had nothing. It's the cornerstone of our family. After my mother died, he let things slide"he knows that"but he's trying now to set things right and get SRS back to where it belongs."
It was a pretty story, one no doubt designed to pull at his heartstrings. Little did she know he didn't have any heartstrings.
"What does that have to do with me?" he asked bluntly.
Those green eyes flashed for a brief moment before she seemed to remember he held her life and future"or at the very least, her father's"in his hands.
"You want to buy Sanchez Restaurant Supply and break it into pieces, selling it off to the highest bidder. I realize it would make a tidy profit for you, but I'm asking you to consider the blood, sweat and tears that went into building SRS. Consider the emotional impact losing the company will have on a good man and his family."
"Emotions have no place in business. Buying out SRS is a sound financial decision, and you're right"I stand to make a tidy sum on the deal. I can't worry about how the previous owner is going to feel about the takeover or what he did to put the company at risk to begin with."
Chase waited for that hint of fire to burn in her eyes once again, but it never came. Instead, she inclined her head once, slowly, before making one last, desperate pitch.
"I thought that's what you would say. I even understand your position. But will a few more weeks really hurt you? There have to be other companies out there that can net you just as much profit. Can't you give my father just a few more weeks, maybe a month, to see if there's something he can do to save the business? If he can't, all you've lost is a little time." She paused for a beat, looking him straight in the eye and lifting both brows. "Unless there's some personal reason you would be averse to helping me or my family."