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There's nothing like the smell of sawdust and paint in the morning, is there?"
Greg Sherman smiled faintly and looked past Shin Endo, his hand-picked director of security for the Taka Kyoto. "As long as the smell is gone before we open for guests." His practiced gaze traveled over the soaring lobby space. In just a few weeks' time, it would need to be a spotless showcase, fit for bearing the esteemed name of Taka, as it welcomed the celebrated and the wealthy into its comfort.
Right now, there was still concrete underfoot where wood floors would be inlaid among gleaming marble, the walls were bare of paint and paper, there was enough visible wiring that it looked as if rats had been at work and laborers and hotel staff were fairly crawling all over.
But beyond the chaos, Greg saw the order.
More importantly, he saw the future.
"Speaking of guests," Shin said. "When's the pampered heiress supposed to arrive?"
Greg absently flipped his hand down his silk tie and stepped around a pallet of shrink-wrapped banquet chairs. He caught the eye of Marco, one of his maintenance crew, and gestured at the pallet. "Get this moved down to storage."
"Right away, Mr. Sherman."
He didn't wait to see that Marco followed words with action. "Next Monday," he answered Shin. He continued walking through the mess toward the offices behind reception, Shin keeping stride. At thirty-five, the other man was three years older than Greg, and about a half-foot shorter.
As far as Greg was concerned, there wasn't a better man in the field and fortunately, Helen Taka-Hanson hadn't quibbled over the price that it had taken to lure Shin away from his previous employer. One thing Greg could say abouthis boss was that she was willing to pay for the best. She was also willing to put her own efforts into a project. Since she'd hired Greg to be the general manager of the Taka Kyoto, she'd proven to be hands-on while still managing to let Greg and his crew do the work they'd been hired to do without undue interference.
"You think she'll actually show up for work?"
"Kimiko Taka?" Greg shrugged. "I wouldn't take bets on it. She's a kid." A wild child, from all reports, whose social activities were often regaled by the press. Greg still wasn't pleased that Helen had stuck him with her stepdaughter. "Officially, she'll only be Grace's very junior sales associate." Grace Ishida ran the sales and catering department, which had responsibility for everything from banquets to full-scale conventions and everything in between. "I doubt being a peon will appeal to the girl too much." At which time, Kimi Taka would surely take herself right back out of his hair.
"And Boss-lady agreed to that position for her stepdaughter?"
"She suggested it," Greg admitted. He understood Shin's surprise, considering he'd shared it. Helen could have ordered her stepdaughter to be put into a management positionno matter how unqualified the girl would have beenand he'd have been powerless to stop her. But Helen hadn't. She'd asked for entry level, and that was all.
So Greg would just have to tolerate Helen's small measure of interference. Given everything on his plate, it would be only a minor nuisance until the reputably spoiled Kimiko became bored and moved on to her next escapade. It couldn't come soon enough for him. The fewer hitches they had, the better he liked it.
Nothing was more important than proving he had what it took to helm this place.
And after this place his own.
"Here." He handed over a thick, stapled report. "The latest guest list for the New Year's Eve gala."
Shin took the report, grimacing. "When are the computers supposed to be online?"
"Last week. Lyle Donahue's got his entire department working on it. You'll see that we'll need extra security for the event." The list contained not only the expected Hanson and Taka faces, but government officials, several celebrities from a half dozen countries and a handful of crowned royals.
Shin was perusing the pages. "You got it. Where's Bridget, anyway?" Bridget McElroy was Greg's secretary.
"Called in sick."
Shin's dark eyebrows rose a little. "That's a first." He turned to leave the office. "I'll get back to you on the numbers for the extra security."
Already turning his mind to the dozen other matters needing his attention, Greg barely heard him. With Bridget out and their computer network still dysfunctional, it was proving to be a trying day.
He grabbed the folder of items he still needed copied for the staff meeting he'd be holding in another hour and left the office. He'd take the materials down to Grace's office. She'd loan him a body who could put together the packets for him.
But he stopped short at the sight that met him.
The pallet of chairs was still sitting in the middle of the lobby floor. Almost eclipsing it, however, was a stack of luggage.
A growing stack of luggage, thanks to the diminutive female directing Marco and a half-dozen other eager helpers. "Please do be careful with that one." The luggage owner darted forward and took a small case from a guy who, ten minutes earlier, had been on a scaffold twenty feet off the ground painting trim work. "Rather fragile, you see." Her smile was impish.
The painter didn't look offended when she took the case. Probably too busy looking at the legs displayed between her over-the-knee white boots and one of the briefest skirts Greg had seen outside of a fashion runway.
All around them, it was as if everyonethe laborers, the staffhad decided it was time to stop whatever it was they were supposed to be doing so they could witness the moment.
The pampered heiress had arrived.
"Here." Shin appeared, pushing a luggage cart that Greg knew he'd had to retrieve from the mezzanine level, where they were all being stored until the hotel opened for guests. "This might be useful." He shot Greg an amused glance as he stopped beside Kimiko Taka.
The girl swept a slender, ivory hand over her shoulder, pushing aside her thick tumble of deep brown hair. She turned, not even needing to beckon before Marco hurried into action, deftly stacking her luggage onto the cart, and treated Greg to her rear view.
The hairhe'd seen it photographed in newspapers and gossip rags looking any number of ways from straight and nauseatingly pink, to black and rainwater slickwas now swirling down the back of her white fur jacket in a mass of ringlets that almost reached her waist. But it was the minuscule skirt beneath the hip-length jacket that damnably caught even Greg's attention.
The word was printed right across her derriere, outlined in sparkling pink stitching.
He felt a pain settle between his eyebrows. Taka hotels were all about taste. Good taste. "Ms. Taka."
The girl whirled on her impossibly high heels to face him. "Yes?"
"Dozo yoroshiku." Despite his misgivings about her, he greeted her with the faint bow that had become automatic for him in the month since he'd been at the Taka. "I am Greg Sherman, the"
"the general manager here at the Taka," she finished in slightly accented English. "Yes. My parents speak most highly of you." Despite the fact that she was the Japanese-born one here, she eschewed the usual practice of returning his circumspect bow and stuck out her hand instead in a thoroughly Western greeting. "How do you do?"
"You've taken us by surprise, actually." He clasped her hand briefly. Long enough to feel how slender her fingers were, how cool her hands were and how electricity shot up his arm at the contact. He released her and reached for the strap of the rescued case that she'd looped over her shoulder. "We didn't expect you until next week."
Her hand brushed against his again as she released the strap. Her deep brown eyes were sparkling. "Better early than late, surely?" In a smooth move, she slid her jacket off her shoulders to reveal a shimmering white, silk blouse through which a pink, lacy bra was plainly visible. Before she could toss the jacket on the mountain of geometrically stacked luggage, half a dozen hands reached out to catch it, earning a seemingly delighted little laugh from her. "In any case, this is quite a welcoming committee."
"Who have other matters to attend to," Greg said pointedly. Looking over her head was easy because, even with the stiletto-heeled boots, the top of those bouncing brown curls didn't reach his shoulder. He gave Marco a look, but the young man was evidently not ready to give up his impromptu bellman duty.
"I can take these to Ms. Taka's room," he offered.
Kimiko looked over at Marco. "Oh, would you mind?" She gave him a smile that could have melted a glacier. On Marco, it was devastating. Greg could practically see the maintenance worker dissolve into a puddle.
His annoyance deepened. "Focus that attention on the pallet, Marco. I expected it to be moved the first time I told you."
The young man flushed at the rebuke. "Sorry, Mr. Sherman." He moved from hoarding the gleaming-bronze luggage cart to the pallet jack. He ducked his chin as he maneuvered the pallet away from them. "Ms. Taka."
Kimi smiled gently at the remorseful man. For pity's sake, it was just a stack of chairs amid a thoroughly chaotic and unfinished hotel lobby. "It was very nice meeting you, Marco."
His smile was sudden and beaming. "You, too, Miss Taka." He pushed the contraption bearing several high stacks of chairs across the concrete.
The construction noise around her suddenly seemed loud, and Kimi sucked in a quick breath before turning back to Greg Sherman.
He did not look anywhere near as kind as the departing Marco. Even though she had done her research about the man in her few weeks before leaving Chicago, she was unaccountably nervous now that they were face-to-face.
Sadly, the black-and-white head shot that had accompanied his vitae in Helen's files had done little to prepare her for the real thing. The photo had only shown a severely conservative man with darkish hair and light eyes who looked as if he rarely smiled.
Helen had told Kimi that she had hand-picked Greg Sherman to be the general manager of the Kyoto location, and Kimi had been surprised, because her stepmother usually liked people with a little more life to them.
But Greg Sherman, in the flesh, was definitely fuller of life than that bland photo had been. Oh, his hair was conservatively short, but the medium brown waves looked like they would escape over his brow given the least provocation. The deep brown suit he wore was well-tailored if not exactly cutting the edge of male fashion, but she supposed it was the ideal choice for a man helming a new first-class hotel.
Then there was the fact that just the brief graze of his hand had left her skin tingling.
She reminded herself that this was her boss. Nothing more. Nothing less.
"I am sorry to have caused a distraction," she said sincerely. "It is good to be here."
The light eyes of the photograph were actually a very distinctive, very pale shade of green. No bluish tinge. No hint of brown. Just a pale green surrounded by a defining black ring that made them all the more startling, and they were looking her over without a single hint of expression.
He did not even acknowledge her sentiment. Instead, he eyed the cart. "Is this all of your luggage?"
She was not certain if he had stressed the all or not. But she was absurdly grateful that she had decided to leave a few things back in Chicago, or there would have been more. Still, she might as well admit to the obvious. "I never did learn the art of packing light. And yes, this is all."
He did not return her smile. "Mrs. Taka-Hanson told me that you've asked to stay on-site. You'll want to settle in."
She would not lose her good humor just because the man had the personality of a plank of oak. A very tall, very broad in the shoulder plank of oak. "Yes, if only to get this stuff out of the lobby."
He seemed to let out a faint sigh. "If you wouldn't mind waiting, I'll get your room key."
Kimi looked past him to the wide, curving sweep of the reception desk. She imagined that beneath the thick plastic and protective paper covering nearly every surface, it would be as spectacular as the one at the Taka San Francisco. She had heard that things were a little behind here, but she had expected the hotel interior to look a little more finished. "Is the rest of the hotel in such" she hesitated for a moment, trying to find a suitable word that would not sound as if she were being judgmental.
"chaos? Today seems somewhat more so than usual." For an infinitesimal secondso brief that she would later wonder if she had imagined ithis gaze dropped from her face to her toes, hitting all points in between. "Our computer network isn't operational yet," he added. "It adds a fresh dimension to the challenges our team's already facing."
The explanation was smooth. Almost smooth enough that she could brush away the idea that she was a contributing factor to his chaos. Almost.
So, Mr. Sherman figured he had her number, did he?
She swept away the sinking disappointment and lifted her chin a little, giving him the same kind of direct look that she had learned at her father's knee. "Well, I appreciate the opportunity to be here." She rested her hand on the cool bronze of the luggage cart and smiled with as much good humor and grace as she had learned from her stepmother. "As you can see, I come hoping to be prepared for anything."
He remained unimpressed. "Shin."
The slender man who had brought the luggage cart snapped to attention.
"Arrange for Ms. Taka's things to be taken up to the Mahogany Suite."
Kimi retrieved her jacket and draped it over her arm, smiling at the man as he guided the cart across the concrete, before it was handed off to two other younger men. She was not surprised. She recognized Shin Endo from his photo, too, and it seemed unlikely that the security director for Taka Kyoto would concern himself with bellman duties.
Speaking of which. She hurriedly fell into step behind Greg, who was striding toward the reception area. "Have all the staff positions been filled now?" Three weeks ago, when she had pretty much begged her father not to have her drawn and quartered for dropping out of school, the staff roster here had been only partially filled.
"No." His answer did not invite further inquiry and she did not know whether to be delighted or aggravated. Yes, she knew she was coming in at a very junior level. Helen had made that more than clear when she had told Kimi what she could expect once arriving in Kyoto. But did that mean he could not discuss even some basic matters with an interested staff member, junior or not?