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Bile rose in his throat. Hot, bitter, acrid bile.
Connor Knight dashed the investigator's report violently across the mahogany surface of his desk, scattering papers like giant confetti through the air where they hovered briefly, before floating to the thickly carpeted study floor.
Through the open French doors behind him he heard the drone of the launch's engines as it pulled away from his private jetty, taking the bearer of bad tidings back across the harbour to Auckland city.
The vile taste in Connor's mouth rivalled the malevolence of his ex-wife's actions. He swallowed against it, but the irrefutable proof of her betrayal could not be as easily diminished.
As if her insatiable partying and gambling hadn't been enough, now he knew that six months into their marriage she'd knowingly destroyed their baby—the child she knew he'd wanted—and had then been sterilised rather than ever bear another child again.
If not for a careless comment from one of her friends at a recent fund-raiser he'd have been none the wiser. Yet the throwaway remark had been all he needed to start the investigation and to confirm that she'd lied about the miscarriage.
A tearing pain clawed at his chest.
The proof of her treachery now lay scattered on his floor— information that had come at a hell of a price, but which was worth every last cent.
A copy of her admission to a private hospital four years ago, the bills from the anaesthetist, the surgeon, the hospital. The procedures. Termination. Sterilisation.
And through it all he'd been oblivious.
So now she wanted more money? He'd have paid it just to be rid of her—until he'd received today's information.
It had been bad enough to realise back then that she'd emasculated him with her deceit, her avaricious need to grasp at everything in her path during their brief union, but this? This went way further than that.
The grandfather clock chimed the hour. Nine o'clock. Damn! The meeting had made him later in to the office than he expected.
He punched the quick dial on the speakerphone on the desk, connecting immediately to his office in the city.
"Holly, I'm running late. Any messages or problems?"
"Nothing urgent, Mr. Knight, I've rescheduled your conference call to New York." His personal assistant's gentle, well-modulated voice washed over him like a calming wave of sanity in the madness of his morning. Thank goodness he could still rely on some people.
Connor slipped into his suit jacket, adjusted his tie and, oblivious to the crunch of the report underfoot, stalked out the open French doors and towards the chopper waiting to take him from his island home and into Auckland's central business district.
If Holly Christmas received one more tartan-beribboned poinsettia she would scream.
So what if her birthday fell on Christmas Eve? She was used to that. After all, it was the same day every year. She blinked back the unbidden rush of tears that pricked her eyes, and gave herself a mental shake. Toughen up, she growled silently. Self-pity was so not her style. Survival—whatever it took—that was her key. Then why did she feel different this year? Empty. Alone.
At least her colleagues had remembered today was her birthday, and not just the last day of work before Knight Enterprises closed for the Christmas break. She straightened her shoulders, stiffened her spine and, with the plant clutched tightly to her aching chest, summoned a smile.
"The poinsettia is beautiful, thanks. I really appreciate it." The words sounded normal, thank goodness, coloured with just the right amount of enthusiasm.
"See you at the party tonight, Holly?" one of the girls asked.
"Oh, yes, I'll be there," she confirmed with a wry twist of her lips. Someone had to see to it that the annual bash ran smoothly, that the grossly inebriated were tactfully withdrawn from the proceedings and inserted into taxis and that spills and breakages were swiftly dealt with. For the third year in a row she was that someone.
She loved her job and she was darned good at it. No, she was better than good. She was the best. And that's why, after working her way through the secretarial pool here at Knight Enterprises she'd risen to Executive PA to Connor Knight, head of the corporate law department.
A "ping" from the elevator bank down the hall heralded the tall, imposing figure striding along the carpet-lined corridor, and sent the small group of women scurrying back to their respective workstations. Holly turned and put the lush red-leafed poinsettia on the credenza behind her desk—next to the one from the finance department and the two that had come up from security and personnel. She caught her lower lip in between her teeth, tugging at its fullness. How on earth was she supposed to get them home on the bus?
"Good morning, Holly." His voice, as rich and dark as sinful chocolate, made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. From the day she'd interviewed for her position as his personal assistant, her reaction to him had always been this painfully immediate, although she'd schooled herself to hide it well.
She'd given up asking herself why his presence made every nerve ending in her body stand on full alert, and learned instead to knuckle down and do her job, masking the flush of warmth that suffused her body. Some people didn't believe in love at first sight, but Holly knew from sudden and lasting experience that it happened.
She clenched her jaw slightly then slowly released it and the tension that bound her muscles, and turned to face him secure in the knowledge he'd never have an inkling as to the thoughts that raced through her mind or the sharpened awareness that brought her senses to screaming attention when he was around.
"Mr. Tanaka from the Tokyo office called about the negotiations. He sounded tense."
Connor didn't break his stride on his way through the open polished-rimu double doors that led to his corner office. "He must be. It's about five-thirty in the morning there. Get him on the line for me."
For the briefest moment Holly allowed herself the luxury of inhaling the lingering scent of his cologne—crisp, fresh and expensive yet with an underlying hint of something forbidden, especially to someone like her. With a mental shake she lifted the receiver of her phone, automatically punching in the numbers that would connect his private line to Japan. She waited until he picked up, then she stood to unlatch the hooks that held the doors open to his interior office. Absorbed in the conversation, his Japanese flawless, he didn't so much as acknowledge her.
Holly indulged in a tiny sigh. Well, love at first sight on her part or not, Connor Knight was oblivious. Newly divorced from his socialite wife when Holly had started working for him, he'd looked right through her, and every other woman who'd crossed his path since, as if she didn't exist. She was a highly dependable machine to him, period.
Confident the call with Mr. Tanaka would tie him up for some time, she made one last check through the details for the staff and children's Christmas parties. This year she'd excelled herself. The cafeteria, transformed into a fairy grotto, looked stunning, and at six-thirty Connor would be playing Santa Claus.
A wry smile played around Holly's lips as she eyed the glaring red Santa suit that hung on the antique brass hat stand in the corner. Mr. Knight, Sr. had insisted Connor play Santa this year, claiming his arthritic knee made it difficult for him to attend to the task, and saying how important it was someone from the family took on the role. Oh, Connor had argued against it, but once his father made up his mind there was no denying it—especially not from his youngest son.
It was probably the only time she'd witnessed her boss at a total disadvantage. "Hell." A deep voice from behind made her spin around in her chair. "He doesn't really expect me to wear that, does he?"
"I think you'll make a wonderful Santa, Mr. Knight." The disgust on his face was self-evident. He thrust a dicta-tape at her together with a clutch of papers. "Transcribe this for me straight away. Oh, and before you do, check the board-room is free and tell the team we need to meet in half an hour."
"Trouble?" Holly enquired, mentally shifting his appointments to free him up for the rest of the morning. It had to be serious if the whole legal team was being called in.
"Nothing we can't handle. Timing's a bit of a blow, though." He cast a baleful glance at the Santa suit, draped limply on the hanger. "I don't suppose..."
"He's not going to let you get out of it." She shook her head sympathetically.
"No, he won't." Connor huffed out a breath and pushed a hand through his immaculately cut and styled hair, sending several strands into unaccustomed disarray.
Holly stifled another smile. This whole Santa thing had sent the cool, calm and sophisticated Connor Knight for a loop, and this from a man she'd seen face down battalions of international lawyers over land and property deals.
She'd never have dreamed that the prospect of a steady procession of children queuing to take their turn seated on his knee would elicit such a nervous response. Still, who was she to ponder? Children made her nervous, too, and, unlike so many of her peers, Holly had put her biological clock firmly on hold. At twenty-six the rest of her life stretched long and lonely ahead of her. There'd be no kids in her future, at least not until she had some answers about her past.
She hated this time of year. All the fun and gaiety of the festivities served to remind her of everything she didn't have—had never had. Knowing she'd ensured everyone else's fun tonight would have to be sufficient to buoy her through the harrowing, bleak emptiness of the holiday break until she could bury herself back in work.
Holly sighed again, and bent to the task at hand. Regretting her decision was not a possibility. Maybe she'd grow old in this chair, or one just like it in another office in another city, but she'd be the best executive PA on the planet. That would have to be enough.
Shrieks of laughter echoed around the room as the clown she'd hired made a fool of himself yet again. Holly took a quick look at her watch. Five minutes until Santa time. He should be here by now. Maybe he was having trouble with the suit.
She turned to her assistant, Janet, a quiet young woman not long out of business college but already showing every sign of making a great PA herself in time.
"If I'm not back in five minutes with Mr. Knight, give the clown the nod to carry on a little longer, will you?"
"Is there anything else I can do to help?"
"No, I'm sure we'll be fine. Santa probably got a phone call." In the elevator Holly mentally ticked off the order of the evening, everything had to run like clockwork. Irritation drummed at the back of her mind. As much as she sympathised with Connor's reluctance to play Santa tonight, he had an obligation to the kids. An obligation he had no business putting off. If he'd bailed on those excited children downstairs she'd be giving him a piece of her mind, boss or not.
She covered the distance from the elevator bank to his corner office in record time and knocked sharply before pushing through the doors. The head of anger she'd built up propelled her into his office with a flurry. But her words stalled in her throat, and she halted midstride.
Connor Knight stood, half-dressed, in the middle of his office. The garish red trousers of his suit hung loosely on his hips, threatening to drop lower if he so much as moved a muscle.
Holly dragged her eyes upwards, her throat as dry as the Sahara, and a deep-seated throb pulsed through her body. Lord have mercy, she thought as her gaze swept across the disturbingly bare tanned expanse of his chest, to the powerful width of his shoulders above it and to the strong column of his neck. It was amazing what Armani could hide, she thought as she forced herself to look him in the eye, hoping the surge of energy that rocketed with heated awareness through her wasn't apparent on her face. If her internal temperature was anything to go by, she should be glowing like a beacon.
She took a steadying breath. What was she here for again? Oh, yes, that's right. Santa.
"Five minutes, Mr. Knight."
"Yeah, I know. Damn suit's too big. Help me stuff some cushions in here. I'm sure the kids of today still expect a bit of meat on their Santas."
"I imagine so," she agreed, and swept up an armful of cushions from the sofa in his office. "Will these do?" she asked.
"As good as anything. Here," Connor slid his hands behind the band of the trousers and held them away from his waist.
"You stuff, I'll hold."
He had to be joking. Holly hesitated and swallowed against the constriction in her throat.
"What are you waiting for?" He shot her a glance, a tiny frown pulling his dark brows together briefly, his impatience clear.
Of course he had no idea of his effect on her. To him she wasn't a woman with needs and desires. She was just his PA.
Besides, as his PA, why wouldn't she be called upon to stuff cushions in her boss's trousers?
"I suppose this is what you meant in my job description, when you said 'and other duties as required from time to time." Keep it light she told herself. Just keep it light.
Surprise skated over his features at her words. Holly inwardly groaned. Why on earth had she said that?
His eyes suddenly crinkled at the edges and he laughed—a rusty sound, as if he didn't do it often enough. "Yeah, something like that. Although, I don't think HR had this scenario in mind."
Holly returned a nervous smile and forced herself forward. Warmth radiated from his bare torso, or was that just the flush of heat in her cheeks? She fought to quell the tremor that threatened to vibrate through her and, with a stern silent warning to herself not to look down, she carefully eased the first cushion between his ridged abdomen and the red satin.
"It's okay, Holly. I won't bite."